Formatpalooza, part XIX: constructing a proposal an agent or editor would like to accept

Sorry about the uncharacteristically long silence, campers. Although you may have concluded that I had withdrawn, discreetly, in order to allow those of you who write literary fiction, memoir, and work that just doesn’t fit neatly into a pre-established category some extra time to prepare your entries in the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition — the deadline is Saturday at midnight in your time zone! — I was, alas, flat on my back.

Or rather resting at an incline, sniffling my way through one of the most annoying flus ever to work its way through the hapless citizenry of this part of the country. Normally, I can work through the haze of such contretemps, but this one was a lulu. I shall post through the weekend, though, to make up for the lost time.

Why the hurry? I know that some of you are eager to polish off — and polish up — your nonfiction book proposals.

Toward that laudable end, we have been bending our collective gaze — steely, to be sure — away from the green pastures of manuscript formatting to turn our attention to the wind-swept plains of book proposals and their proper formatting. As we have seen in our brief sojourn amid the majestic buffalo and skipping lambs, while the text of a book proposal is formatted largely in the same matter as a manuscript’s, the various headings and subheadings are often different.

Allow me to take a brief pause in the midst of all of that stirring imagery to sneeze violently.

Before we resume, did you notice how I dropped that running metaphor when it became apparent that it wasn’t working? That’s a good editing tip for any kind of writing: if it doesn’t fly, don’t force it. An even better one: while proofing you work, make sure you read all the way to the end of every sentence; it’s the only way to catch metaphors abandoned mid-stream.

Why, yes, Virginia, I do see orphaned metaphors wandering about ostensibly well-revised manuscripts. All the time. It’s one of the species markings of the Frankenstein manuscript.

As we saw last time, a professional book proposal contains a wide range of marketing materials, all written in the proposer’s best possible prose, cleverly fitted together in a manner to convince an agent or editor that the proposed book an interesting idea that will appeal to a very specific (and, ideally, well-established) target audience. Not only that, but that the proposer is the best (and, ideally, the only) conceivable person currently drawing breath to write this particular book.

Or, to put it in the language of the industry, it’s a marketable concept presented by a writer with a great platform.

Pardon me while I wrap myself up warmly — the thousand hands that just shot into the air created quite a draft. “Excuse me, Anne?” many would-be proposers inquire nervously. “You didn’t really mean that bit about the proposal written in the proposer’s best possible prose, did you? After all, the proposal is just a formality, a series of hoops through which I have to jump before a publisher buys my book, right? All that really matters is a great book concept.”

Actually, no — although I can certainly see why you might think so. Unlike novels, nonfiction books (yes, even most memoirs) are sold not because someone falls in love with the manuscript, but because a prospective author has made a convincing case in a proposal that a book that does not yet exist will be marketable to a specific audience and that s/he is the right person to write it.

Since the book concept and the argument for it are the primary sales pitch, most first-time proposers conclude that the writing in a proposal is of secondary importance. They’re absolutely wrong.

Why? Because every syllable of a book proposal is a writing sample — the only writing sample, in fact, upon which an agent or editor will base his or her conclusions about whether to pick up the book.

Picture, if you will (and you will, right?), Maury the editorial assistant, diligently scanning the day’s submissions from agents for the next promising nonfiction project. He has reason to be careful: he needs to be very, very selective about what he passes on to his boss, the editor of your dreams. (Let’s call her Ermintrude, just for giggles.) If he simply sends Ermintrude every proposal that sounds as if it might make a good book, he’s not really doing his job, is he? It’s not as though she can offer a publication contract to every interesting-sounding project, after all; at most, even an extremely busy editor might be able to take on somewhere between one and ten a year.

Yes, you read that correctly. Believe me, if Ermintrude had her druthers, she would be publishing at least 30 times that many, but her druthers are, alas, constrained by economic realities and marketing trends.

Please think about that, if were planning to toss together your book proposals over the next long weekend, or stuff them into the mailbox without running the text by another literate human being not already familiar with your book’s concept — or, sacre bleu! if you have already sent off a New Year’s resolution-fueled submission packet. Even though it has historically been quite a bit easier to land an agent and sell a first nonfiction book than a debut novel, the competition is still extremely fierce.

So when you see an agency’s submission guidelines seemingly casually asking nonfiction writers to query with proposal, this is not a requirement to approach lightly. The Millicents who screen those proposals for agents are expecting not a thrown-together, paint-by-numbers, bare-minimum document; they are expecting to see a polished, professional presentation of a terrific book concept written in beautiful, clear prose.

Why set the bar that high? Let’s wend our way back to Maury’s cubicle to find out.

It’s Maury’s job to prevent Ermintrude’s desk from becoming so over-stacked with proposals that she can’t find her phone. That means, in practice, that he’s going to weed out any proposal that doesn’t sound interesting right off the bat. He’s also going to reject those that don’t have a clearly-defined concept — which, in a screener’s world, means one that’s both grabbed his attention instantly and is comprehensible within the first few pages of the proposal — as well as those that either don’t define their target market well or do not strike him as likely to appeal to the readers already buying such books. Not to mention those that don’t seem to have a well laid-out marketing plan or chapters likely to deliver fully upon the premise of the proposal, or those proposed by writers who haven’t made a good case for their platforms to write the book.

That, frankly, is most of ‘em. I hate to be blunt about it, but because the book proposal is such a widely misunderstood marketing tool, Maury sees a whole lot of rambling proposals. And rambling, unprofessional proposals are most of what Millicent sees on a weekly basis.

In both cases, the response is the same: “Next!” Unfortunately, due to the sheer volume of submissions, it’s likely to be “Next!” for quite a few well-written ones, too.

Why, you cry in tones of anguish? Let’s be generous and assume that Maury’s had an unusually strong selection of proposals tumble onto his desk this week: out of 300, 10 are genuinely fascinating ideas for books aimed for a well-established audience.

He is facing a dilemma, right? Obviously, he can’t possibly pass them all along to his boss — remember, 10 is Ermintrude’s entire year’s allotment of books, even if she works nights, weekends, and funds the last two herself, and this is only the first week of the year. So how does he decide which one or two to send across the hall to her?

That’s right: the ones where the writing in the first few pages screams, “Excuse me, but had you noticed that there’s some talent here?”

Yes, I did indeed say the first few pages; as with a novel, if the opening doesn’t shine, a professional reader is unlikely to read on.

Don’t pout — this information is potentially empowering, because it can steer a nonfiction writer toward specific, helpful revisions. If a literate person like Maury can’t tell Ermintrude what the book is about and why you’re the best person on earth to write it by the time he is halfway through page 4, you might want to think about some serious revision. And if he doesn’t positively long to read the book by the middle of page 2, run, don’t walk, back to the drawing board to work on your prose and presentation.

Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, let’s review the constituent parts of the book proposal — at least, the ones we have covered so far:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves Maury with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being currently possessing an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

Okay, okay, so I kind of slipped that last one up the back staircase, but it’s an important question to consider when evaluating whether your book proposal is strong enough to head out the door. Let’s face it: most book proposals are very, very dry. That makes some sense, given that for even the most enthusiastic book proposer, comparing books currently on the market and talking about methods for reaching a target audience are not inherently exciting topics.

As a result, many a book proposal reads like a book report: all of the necessary parts are there, but the writing is perfunctory and, well, dull. Quite apart from the very real risk of boring Maury and Millicent — who, after all, read quite a few proposals in any given day, if their bosses handle nonfiction — a just-the-facts-ma’am proposal runs another risk: conveying the impression that the book being proposed will be sketchily or uncompellingly written as well.

But this is a marketing document, right? Why not use those pages to give Millicent and Maury a strong foretaste of what the book will be like? Or, to phrase it as an axiom: it’s a great asset to a book proposal if it is written in the same voice (and with the same vocabulary) as the eventual book.

Especially if you can do it excitingly within the first few paragraphs of the proposal. As we discussed last time, a fantastic way to establish authorial voice and interest in the subject matter is to start the proposal with a vividly illustrative anecdote or other method of direct appeal to the reader’s reason and emotions.

Opening with personality-free marketing material tends not to grab Maury’s attention anywhere near as well. Unless you would rather try to thrill him with a hook focused upon last year’s sales statistics?

3. The competitive market analysis
This section, as I hope you will recall from last time, consists of a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied in each case by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

Sound familiar? It should: here is where the proposer proves the contentions he made in the overview. Preferably, with hard data.

Which of the many, many contentions, you ask, and how does talking about one’s competition prove them? Well, for starters, who the target audience is for your book?

Answer: the readers who have already bought the books listed in the competitive market analysis. The implicit logic: if those books sold well, that means these people buy a lot of books — and might be eager to buy more.

Remember, this should not be a list, but a compare-and-contrast essay, presented in standard format. The essay format is actually to your advantage: while you’re comparing and contrasting, you can demonstrate how your book is different and better than what’s already on the market — and yes, Virginia, that can (and should) be done without running down the competition, as long as you’re specific.

Think about it: if you mention the best points of the other books and can still make the case that your proposed volume will either do what they do, only more effectively (do you have a stronger platform than another author, for instance, or is the other book outdated now?) and/or not in the same way (what does your take on the subject offer that those other books do not?), your book is going to end up looking better by contrast than if you merely say that everything else is terrible.

Trust me on this one. If you can’t say anything nice about a particular comparable book, consider instead contrasting yours to one that you can praise with a straight face.

Some of you have had your hands raised since last time, have you not? “But Anne,” proposers everywhere exclaim, rubbing circulation back into their exhausted arms, “one of the reasons I wanted to write my book in the first place is that there isn’t another recent book on the subject. So how do I come up with a list for the competitive market analysis? Make things up?”

Glad you asked, patient arm-raisers — there’s a pro’s trick for handling this. But first, indulge me by participating in a short exercise in understanding your book’s appeal.

(a) Equip yourself with some scratch paper (the back sides of earlier drafts of your proposal, perhaps?) and a comfortable pen.
I would suggest selecting a comfortable chair, too, because you’re not to budge until you come up with a list to take with you to a bookstore.

(b) Brainstorm five different ways to describe your proposed book.
And I’m not talking about descriptors like well-written, either — describe your book the way a clerk in a bookstore might to a potential reader. Is it a memoir about your childhood spent following your mother as she worked as a gold-panner in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the 1920s? Then your list might run like this: memoir of 10-year-old girl, treasure-hunting, mountain living, 1920s, and women in unusual occupations.

Starting to get the hang of this? Let’s try another one: the proposer of a self-help book aimed at mothers with children suffering from life-threatening illnesses, illustrated with abundant real-life case studies might generate a list like this: self-help for mothers, terminal illness, medical memoir, parenting books, dealing with the prospect of death, and mourning.

Got your list firmly in hand? Good. Now…

(c) Hie yourself and your list hence to the nearest well-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore.
Seriously, what I’m about to suggest is considerably harder to pull off online.

Standing in the store, feeling silly for carrying that list around? Excellent. Ready, set…

(d) Don’t find a book like yours. Instead find a couple of books that match one — and only one — descriptor on your list.
Yes, really: while it would be terrific to discover a book similar enough to yours that you can perform a direct point-by-point comparison, it’s actually not necessary for your book proposal. Instead, go to the first descriptor on your list and find several books that could be described with the same term.

Proposing a memoir, for instance? Stand in front of the memoir section and keep pulling books off the shelves until you discover a few that are similar in some way to yours — not identical, but exhibiting some subject matter or approach overlap.

It can be a very, very small way. Is it a childhood memoir by someone who grew up in the same part of the country as you did? Start taking notes. Is another by a dog-lover, while two chapters of your proposed book cover your relationship with beloved Spot? Sounds close enough to me. If your memoir set in the mid-1960s, find a few good nonfiction titles that cover similar aspects of the period.

After you’ve ferreted out a few useful titles, move on to the next descriptor on your list. If your cookbook is for vegans, how about including as few of the well put-together vegetarian cookbooks out recently? Not too hard to see how your book would be different and better for vegan readers than those, right? If your memoir features a chapter on the day your big brother ran away to join the army, wouldn’t it make sense to grab a couple of military memoirs, to check which dealt with family issues?

And so forth. The goal here is not necessarily to find a dozen books exactly like yours; it’s also perfectly permissible to devote a paragraph or two each to several different book categories into which your unique book might conceivably fall. Chances are, you’re going to find more books than you actually need. When in doubt, go with the ones that sold better and/or were released by major U.S. publishers; while a book from a smaller press, or one that sold only a few hundred copies, might actually be a better fit, it will provide less evidence to Millicent and her boss that there are editors at major houses already eager to buy books like yours.

Once you have come up with a dozen or so titles, you are ready to begin writing your competitive market analysis.

(e) Instead of trying to draw overall comparisons between your proposed book and each of the titles on your list, focus instead on the single point of overlap — and show how your book will address that particular point in a better way or with a different take than the already-published book.
Try not to fall into the trap of hyper-literalism here. If your book is about being raised by bears, and you are contrasting it with a memoir about being raised by wolves, you’re not going to get a lot of mileage out of saying, WOLF CHILD completely ignores the problems of the bear-raised human, so my book, CUB SCOUT, will appeal to the wild-animal/family market more.

Well, of course a book about wolves would not address bears; it’s not reasonable to expect otherwise. By concentrating upon more positive points of comparison, it’s easier to make your book’s legitimate selling points clear: like the best-selling WOLF CHILD, CUB SCOUT is a first-person account of being raised by wild animals. Wolves, however, have a long history of taking in abandoned human children; I was the first child in the Cascade region ever to have spent significant time with the grizzly without ending up a corpse.

See the difference? Again, the point here is not to convey the impression that you consider every similar book out there your competition, and therefore its author an enemy to be discredited. By demonstrating that there is already a market for books that match your five descriptors — as there must be, according to industry logic, or those recently-released books would not be on the shelves* — the implication is that past readers of each of those types of book might arguably be interested in yours.

(* Don’t waste your energies questioning this quite debatable assumption; you’ve got a proposal to write.)

Everyone clear now on the purpose and proper formatting of the competitive market analysis? If not, now would be a fabulous time to shout out a question or two. While I’m waiting with my hand cupped around my ear, let’s move on to the next section.

4. The annotated table of contents
It’s not surprising that this section falls flat in so many proposals; many, if not most, proposers don’t seem to understand the purpose of the annotated table of contents. Many, many proposers labor under the misconception that what agents and editors expect to see in this section is simply a list of chapter titles, accompanied by guesstimated page numbers. Many, many other proposers assume that they should devote a page to each chapter.

Or even several. For my sins, I’ve seen proposal drafts with 20-page annotated tables of contents. Believe me, Maury was far from pleased.

Avoid that dreadful fate in yours; keep it brief, but substantial. One to two paragraphs on each envisioned chapter is about right — remembering, of course, that everything in a book proposal is a writing sample. At the risk of repeating myself, show, don’t tell.

How does one pull that off when covering so much territory in so short a space as a paragraph or two? The same way you came up with the descriptive paragraph of your query letter, ideally: instead of trying to summarize everything that happens in a chapter in general terms, pick a particularly interesting scene or argument and present it in vivid terms.

In other words: be specific, not general. If you can possibly manage it, try to include details that Maury is unlikely to see in another proposal.

Again, you’re going to want to write this as narrative, not a list, but this section of the proposal has some odd conventions, ones that tend to come as a surprise to most first-time proposers. To see them in action, let’s take a gander at out example from the other day. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the specifics, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Notice anything here that might offend the muses of standard format, were this a novel? How about the fact that the title of the book appears at the top of the page, as if Annotated Table of Contents were a subtitle? Or the phenomenon of adding a section break between each chapter’s description? Or that the descriptions were in the present tense, like a synopsis?

Actually, there’s a pretty good explanation for the first two of these conventions. (Sorry; you’re on your own for the last.) Remember how I mentioned earlier in this sub-series that unlike a manuscript, book proposals are often broken up into their constituent parts on the reading end, so folks working in different departments at publishing houses may take a gander at ‘em?

Titling the annotated table of contents renders it easier to get those pages back into the right proposal. Skipping a line between chapters makes it simpler for an editor to find the chapter she is seeking when she’s in an editorial committee meeting or arguing with your agent about what will be in the final book.

Oh, you weren’t aware that editors often ask writers to change the proposed chapters? Happens all the time, so gird your loins, nonfiction-proposers, and prepare to play ball.

If the very notion of being asked to remove your meticulously-researched chapter on steam engines (in order to replace it with a similar section on cotton gins, about which the acquiring editor did her undergraduate thesis at Columbia) or to reduce your seven intended chapters on your life prior to the age of 17 into as many paragraphs (so you may concentrate at greater length on your four subsequent years as a sword-swallower) causes your skin crawl in revulsion, do not despair. You actually do have a means of making sure your favorite chapters pass the editorial test: write about them brilliantly in the annotated table of contents.

Seriously, if ever there was a time to show, not tell, this is it. The more vividly-depicted specifics you can work into those chapter descriptions, the better. Think of it as an opportunity to let Maury and Millicent know what a great storyteller you are.

Why is that especially important in the annotated table of contents, you ask? The vast majority of first proposals just summarize what’s going to be in each chapter, instead of using each chapter to tell a compelling separate story. Because you’re selling your talents as a writer here, as well as the subject matter of the book, that’s a serious faux pas.

If you just muttered to yourself, “Hey, might this not be an amazingly good place to demonstrate just how my book is different and better than the ones I was discussing in the last section?” congratulations — you’re starting to think like a pro. Especially in a memoir or cookbook proposal, this is a great spot to work in mention of how your book is uniquely yours:

annotated table of contents2

If you eagerly shot your hand into the air as you glanced over that last example, eager to point out that this example was formatted slightly differently than the one before it, congratulations again — your eye is sharpening. The last version is in the version my agency prefers; the desire for bolding and all caps is not universal.

Just thought you might like to see both. And if I haven’t said it often enough yet: if the agent of your dreams wants you to format your proposal differently from what I advise here — in, for example, clearly laid-out guidelines on the agency’s website — for heaven’s sake, give him what he wants. In the book proposal as well as the manuscript, the average agent is looking for evidence that a potential client can follow directions.

Don’t see why that would be an essential quality in a book-proposing client? Okay, let me ask you: if you were an agent, would you rather represent the writer who says, “Lose my Chapter 13 and dumb down the book’s vocabulary to an 8th-grade reading level? Can do, Ermintrude!” or the one who flies into an uncontrollable fury and comes weeping to the agent, demanding to cancel the book contract?

Oh, come on — you didn’t really hesitate over that choice as long as you pretended, did you?

I’ll be wrapping up book proposal formatting next time — literally: I’ll be talking about the folders that encase them. Until we meet again in that happy, not-too-distant future, keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XVIII: checking off all of those boxes, or, how to format a book proposal

How’s everybody doing out there? Are all of you nonfiction writers excited that I’ve been talking about writing specific to your book categories, or is everyone still too burned out from New Year’s festivities that you’re sitting there, glassy-eyed, silently willing the first Monday of 2011 to be over, already? Or — and I sincerely hope this is the case — are you paying attention to this post with one part of your brain, while another delightedly plots how to polish up your entries to the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition? There are both fiction and nonfiction categories this time around, folks, so I hope all of you memoirists who just dropped by for the formatting tips will at least consider entering.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what you’ll send in. As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while may have sensed, I honestly do like to see what my readers are writing.

And, of course, to know how I can help you present your manuscripts and proposals more professionally. If you have a question about standard format, or something for which you would like to see more practical examples, by all means, let me know. That’s why the comment function is there, folks!

Seriously, it’s to everybody’s benefit if you ask; trust me, if you have been wondering, so have hundreds of other writers. The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers have never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript or book proposal, after all. I would much, much rather you asked me than took a wild guess in your submissions.

Readers’ questions also allow me to fine-tune the archive list at right — I want to make it as intuitive as possible for a panicked aspiring writer to use. (Speaking of which, since no one has commented yet on last November’s rather radical rearrangement of the archive list, am I to conclude that (a) most of you are finding it easier to use than its previous incarnation, (b) most of you are finding it harder to use, but are too polite to say so, (c) despite the monumental effort of rearranging it under subheadings, the result is precisely as user-friendly as the simple alphabetical list it replaced, or (d) nobody has noticed? It would be quite helpful for me to know.)

I’m particularly interested in finding out what pieces of information are comparatively difficult to find in my frankly pretty hefty archives. Why, only last February, eagle-eyed reader Kim was kind enough to point out a fairly extensive omission in my twice-yearly examinations of standard format for manuscripts: although I had been providing illustrations of same for several years now, I’d never shown the innards of a properly-formatted book proposal. In fact, as Kim explained,

Anne — Thank you for this glorious blog. It is a wealth of information. I am putting together a submissions package (requested materials, yea!), which includes a book proposal. After searching through your site, I still can’t find a specific format for the thing. For example, should the chapter summaries be outlined? double-spaced? Should I start a new page for each subheading? Also, my book has several very short chapters (80 in total). Should I group some of them together in the summaries, lest it run too long? Or is it better to give a one sentence description of each? Thanks again.

My first response to this thoughtful set of observations, I must admit, was to say, “No way!” After all, I had written a quite extensive series entitled HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL (beginning here) as recently as…wait, did that date stamp say August of 2005?

As in within a month of when I started this blog? More to the point, since before I sold my second nonfiction book to a publisher? (No, you haven’t missed any big announcements, long-time readers: that one isn’t out yet, either.)

Clearly, I had a bit of catching up to do. Equally clearly, I am deeply indebted to my intrepid readers for telling me when they cannot find answers to their burning questions in the hugely extensive Author! Author! archives.

The burning question du jour: how is a book proposal formatted differently than a book manuscript? Or is it?

In most ways, it isn’t; in some ways, however, it is. Rather than assume, as I apparently did for four and a half years, that merely saying that book proposals should be in standard manuscript format (with certain minimal exceptions), let’s see what that might look like in action.

In fact, since I’ve been going over the constituent parts in order, let’s go ahead recap from the beginning, talking a little about what purpose each portion of it serves. Here, ladies and gentlemen of the Author! Author! community, are the building blocks of a professional book proposal, illustrated for your pleasure. As you will see, much of it is identical in presentation to a manuscript.

1. The title page
Like any other submission to an agent or editor, a book proposal should have a title page. Why? To make it easier to contact you — or your agent — and buy the book, of course.

As we discussed in our last ‘Palooza post, once a writer has landed an agent, the agency’s contact information belongs on the title page, so the editor of one’s dreams may contact one’s agent easily to acquire the book. Prior to either the happy day of an offer on one’s book or the equally blissful day one signs with an agent, the writer’s contact information belongs on the title page.

2. The overview
First-time proposers often shirk on this part, assuming — wrongly — that all that’s required to propose a nonfiction book is to provide the kind of 1-, 3-, or 5-page synopsis one might tuck into a query packet. In practice, however, a successful overview serves a wide variety of purposes:

(a) It tells the agent or editor what the proposed book will be about, and why you are the single best person on earth to write about it. Pretty much everyone gets that first part, but presenting one’s platform credibly is often overlooked in an overview. (I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if an agent or editor makes it to the bottom of page 3 of your proposal without understanding why you are a credible narrator for this topic, your proposal is going to fall flat, no matter how inherently interesting your topic may be.

(b) It presents the central question or problem of the book, explaining why the topic is important and to whom , amplifying on the argument in (a), couching it in larger terms and trends. Or, to put it another way: why will the world be a better place if this book is published?

No, that’s not an egomaniac’s way to look at it. Why do your readers need to read this book? How will their lives or understanding of the world around them be strengthened or reshaped by it?

(c) It demonstrates why this book is needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history. That one is self-explanatory, I hope.

(d) It answers the burning question: who is the target audience for this book, anyway? To reframe the question as Millicent’s boss will: how big is the intended market for this book, and how do we know that they’re ready to buy a book on this subject?

(e) It explains why this book will appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market will. (In other words, how are potential readers’ needs not being served by what’s been published within the last five years — the usual definition of the current market — and why will your book serve those needs in a better, or at any rate different, manner?

(f) It shows how your platform will enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might conceivably write this book. Essentially, this involves tying together all of the foregoing, adding your platform, and stirring.

(g) It makes abundantly clear the fact that you can write. Because, lest we forget, a book proposal is a job application at base: the writer’s primary goal is to get an agent or editor to believe that she is the right person to hire to write the book she’s proposing.

Yes, there should be separate sections of the book proposal that address all of these points in detail. The overview is just that: a quick summary of all of the important selling points for your book, presented in a manner intended to entice an agent or editor to read on to the specifics.

In the interest of establishing points (a), (b), and (g) right off the bat, I like to open a book proposal with an illustrative anecdote or direct personal appeal that thrusts the reader right smack into the middle of the central problem of the piece, reducing it to an individual human level. Basically, the point here is to answer the question why would a reader care about this subject? within the first few lines of the proposal, while showing off the writer’s best prose.

For a general nonfiction book — particularly one on a subject that Millicent might at first glance assume, perish the thought, to be a bit on the dry side — this is a great opportunity for the writer to give a very concrete impression of why a reader might care very deeply about the issue at hand. Often, the pros open such an anecdote with a rhetorical question.

overview NF page 1

The opening anecdote gambit works especially well for a memoir proposal, establishing both the voice and that the memoir’s central figure is an interesting person in an interesting situation. While it’s best to keep the anecdote brief — say, anywhere between a paragraph and a page and a half — it’s crucial to grab Millicent’s attention with vividly-drawn details and surprising turns of event. To revisit our example from last time:

overview1

overview2

As we saw in that last example, you can move from the anecdote or opening appeal without fanfare, simply by inserting a section break — in other words, by skipping a line. While many book proposals continue this practice throughout the overview, it’s visually more appealing to mark its more important sections with subheadings, like so:

subheading in proposal

Incorporating subheadings, while not strictly speaking necessary, renders it very, very easy for Millicent the agency screener to find the answers to the basic questions any book proposal must answer. If the text of the proposal can address those questions in a businesslike tone that’s also indicative of the intended voice of the proposed book, so much the better.

Please note, however, that I said businesslike, not in business format. Under no circumstances should a book proposal either be single-spaced or present non-indented paragraphs.

This one confuses a lot of first-time proposers, I’ve noticed. “But Anne!” they protest, and not entirely without justification. “A book proposal is a business document, isn’t it? Doesn’t that mean that it should be in business format?”

The short answer is my God — no! The not-so-short answer is: not if you want Millicent to read it. An aspiring writer who does not indent her paragraphs is presumed illiterate.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the publishing industry does not use business format, even in its business letters; always, always, ALWAYS indent your paragraphs.

3. The competitive market analysis
The competitive market analysis is probably the most widely misunderstood portion of the book proposal. What the pros expect to see here is a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

But that’s not how you’ve heard this section described, is it? Let me take a stab at what most of you have probably heard: it’s a list of 6-12 similar books.

Period. The sad, sad result usually looks like this:

competitive market analysis bad

Makes it pretty plain that the writer thinks all that’s required here is proof that there actually have been other books published on the subject in the past, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, to Millicent’s critical eye, such a list doesn’t merely seem like ignorance of the goal of the competitive market analysis — it comes across as proof positive of the authorial laziness of a writer who hasn’t bothered to learn much about either how books are proposed or the current market for the book he’s proposing.

To be fair, this is the section where first-time proposers are most likely to skimp on the effort. Never a good idea, but a particularly poor tactic here. After all of these years, the average Millicent is darned tired of proposers missing the point of this section: all too often, first-time proposers assume that it has no point, other than to create busywork.

As you may see above, the bare-bones competitive market analysis makes the writer seem as if he’s gone out of his way to demonstrate just how stupid he thinks this particular exercise is. That’s because he’s missed the point of the exercise.

The goal here is not merely to show that other books exist, but that the book being proposed shares salient traits with books that readers are already buying. And because the publishing industry’s conception of the current market is not identical to what is actually on bookstore shelves at the moment, the savvy proposer includes in his competitive market analysis only books that have been released by major houses within the last five years.

That last point made some of you choke on your tea, didn’t it? Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you before the first time you proposed?

Even when proposers do take the time to research and present the appropriate titles, a handful of other mistakes tend to mark the rookie’s proposal for Millicent. Rather than show you each of them individually, here’s an example that includes several. Take out your magnifying glass and see how many you can catch.

competitive market analysis 2

How did you do?

Let’s take the more straightforward, cosmetic problems first, the ones that should immediately leap out at anyone familiar with standard format. There’s no slug line, for starters: if this page fell out of the proposal — as it might; remember, proposals are unbound — Millicent would have no idea to which of the 17 proposals currently on her desk it belonged. It does contain a page number, but an unprofessionally-presented one, lingering at the bottom of the page with, heaven help us, dashes on either side.

Then, too, one of the titles is underlined, rather than italicized, demonstrating formatting inconsistency, and not all of the numbers under 100 are written out in full. Not to mention the fact that it’s single-spaced!

All of this is just going to look tacky to Millie, right?

Okay, what else? Obviously, this version is still presented as a list, albeit one that includes some actual analysis of the works in question; it should be in narrative form. Also, it includes the ISBN numbers, which to many Millicent implies — outrageously! — a writerly expectation that she’s going to take the time to look up the sales records on all of these books.

I can tell you now: it’s not gonna happen. If a particular book was a runaway bestseller, the analysis should have mentioned that salient fact.

There’s one other, subtler problem with this example — did you catch it?

I wouldn’t be astonished if you hadn’t; many a pro falls into this particular trap. Let’s take a peek at this same set of information, presented as it should be, to see if the gaffe jumps out at you by contrast.

competitive market analysis3

Any guesses? How about the fact that the last example’s criticism is much, much gentler than the one immediately before it?

Much too frequently, those new to proposing books will assume, wrongly, that their job in the competitive market analysis is rip apart every previous book on the subject. They try to make the case that every other book currently available has no redeeming features, as a means of making their own book concepts look better by contrast.

Strategically, this is almost always a mistake. Anybody out there have any ideas why?

If it occurred to you that perhaps, just perhaps, the editors, or even the agents, who handled the books mentioned might conceivably end up reading this book proposal, give yourself three gold stars. It’s likely, isn’t it? After all, agents and editors both tend to specialize; do you honestly want the guy who edited the book you trashed to know that you thought it was terrible?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you do not. Nor do you want to insult that author’s agent. Trust me on this one.

No need to go overboard and imply that a book you hated was the best thing you’ve ever read, of course — the point here is to show how your book will be different and better, so you will need some basis for comparison. You might want to avoid phrases like terrible, awful, or an unforgivable waste of good paper, okay?

I had hoped to get a little farther in the proposal, but as I’m already running long, I’m going to sign off for the day. But since you’re all doing so well, here’s one final pop quiz before I go: what lingering problem remains in this last version, something that might give even an interested Millicent pause in approving this proposal?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, shouting, “I know! I know! Most of these books came out more than five years ago, and of those, The Gluten-Free Gourmet is the only one that might be well enough known to justify including otherwise,” give yourself seven gold stars for the day.

Heck, take the rest of the day off; I am. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part IX: areas of authorial discretion, or, there are rules, and there are rules

full moon in the gutter

At the risk of seeming trite, I would like to point out that it has been raining a great deal in Seattle of late. Not the normal constant misty drizzle that characterizes our dark Pacific Northwest winters, but sheets. Buckets. The proverbial cats and dogs, with an antelope or two thrown in by whatever celestial water-monger has seen fit to try to drown us.

I’m not saying we’re worried. I’m saying my neighbors came over this evening to ask how long a cubit was, so they could read the blueprints for their ark.

But enough idly wondering where on earth they found a pair of yeti for their menagerie. Time to get back to the matter at hand: manuscript formatting.

Over the last couple of posts, we have been gladdening our hearts (okay, gladdening my detail-loving editorial heart) with discussion of something that Millicent the agency screener just loves to see, a properly-formatted first page of a manuscript, as well as phenomena she sees more often, but likes less, various species of improperly formatted page 1. The Millicent-pleasing version looked, if you will recall, a little something like this — and, as always, if you’re having trouble seeing the details, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly.

good example revised

Now that’s a lovely page 1: unprovocative, professional-looking, and flaunting lots of nice, clean white space at the top. “Ah,” Millicent murmurs, settling back into her chair, “now I can concentrate on the writing and the story.”

Contrast that, please, with the much more cluttered short story format all too many book and book proposal submitters mistakenly believe is universally applicable to any writing on paper:

Pretty distracting to the eye, is it not? Admittedly, not all embracers of this format will choose to clutter the space up further with an epigraph — which, as we discussed last time, it not generally the best idea at the submission stage, no matter what you want the published version of your book to look like — but one does not need to be the Amazing Kreskin to predict that their submission packets all share another unprofessional characteristic: no title page.

How do I know that? Well, think about it: since all of that eye-displacing verbiage — title, book category, word count, contact information — would in a properly-constructed submission packet appear on the title page, why would a submitter repeat all of it at the top of page 1?

Both page 1 and the opening of each subsequent chapter should include all of the spaciousness of that first example, not launching into the text until 14 single lines from the top of the page. (Or, to put it another way, 6 double-spaced lines under the chapter title. And for those of you who do not know how to insert a hard page break into a Word document, it’s located under the INSERT menu. Select BREAK, then PAGE BREAK.)

Did that bit about the subsequent chapters catch any of you by surprise? To prevent that kind of confusion in future, let’s go ahead and hatch a new axiom: each new chapter should begin on a fresh page, but the first page of every chapter should be formatted exactly like page 1.

Yes, Virginia: exactly, at least in terms of formatting. Since the book’s title should appear on the title page, why would the opening of the book and the opening of Chapter 6 be different?

So you may see that in action (and to prove that I practice what I preach), here’s what could be the first page of Chapter Six my memoir:

Memoir wo title

I said could, because actually, I’m not a big fan of chapters named Chapter Six, even if they happen to be the sixth chapter in the manuscript. It’s sort of like dubbing a suburban street lined with elm trees Elm Street: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a straightforward, descriptive title, but you must admit, it’s not startlingly original.

It’s not precisely going to come as a shock to many readers when Chapter Six appears immediately after Chapter Five, after all. At least not readers whose counting skills have moved past their first hand.

Speaking of hands, I see many of them waving in the air, apparently trying to attract my attention. “Okay, Anne,” those of you fond of naming things inquire, “how should a chapter title appear on the page, if I also want to number it? Or do I need to choose between numbering and titling?”

Not at all — go ahead and include both, if that makes you happy. In fact, it’s actually a little easier for agents and editors if you do number titled chapters; it’s simpler for a feedback-giver to say, “Please tone down the snarkiness in Chapter 6 of your memoir, Ermintrude,” than “You know the snarky tone in the chapter called something like How I Had My Way with Ocelots, or, Twenty-seven Ways to Skin a Cat? Give it a rest, Ermintrude.”

The formatting is very simple: just add the chapter title on the second double-spaced line of text, centered under the chapter number designation. (Freeing up mental space to speculate: what was Ermintrude doing with all of those ocelots?)

This format should sound at least a trifle familiar: we’ve already seen it in action in today’s first example. But in furtherance of my ongoing mission to place so many examples of correctly-formatted manuscript pages in front of your weary eyes that you’ll start automatically recoiling from pages in published books, muttering, “Well, that wouldn’t work in a manuscript submission, let’s take a gander at another one:

memoir w ch title

Actually, I had an ulterior motive in showing you that last example: in comparing it to the example just before it, do you notice anything about the amount of space between the chapter number and the beginning of the text?

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “By gum, Anne, the area between the two appears identical! You’ve simply placed the chapter title within it, you clever lady,” award yourself an extra helping of hot fudge on your sundae. (If devoting a couple of weeks to discussing standard format doesn’t entitle an aspiring writer to dessert, nothing does.)

Regardless of whether a chapter’s opening page contains a chapter designation, a title, or both, the text should begin the same distance from the top of the page. The same logic would apply to any other information you might see fit to include at the beginning of a chapter — alerting the reader to a break between Part I and Part II of a book, for instance.

Since so many aspiring writers ask me about part breaks — hey, I’m not known as the Format Queen for nothing; I would much, much rather that my readers ask me than misformat their submissions — let’s take a look at the phenomenon in action. If Chapter 6 were the beginning of Part II of my memoir (it isn’t, but we aim to please here at Author! Author!), I would have formatted it thus:

memoir w part break

Starting to get the hang of this? Okay, let’s talk about inserting another common piece of introductory information in that heading: identifying a narrator-du-chapter in a multiple point-of-view novel.

If the switch comes at the beginning of a chapter, it couldn’t be easier: it’s simply another reader-signal that belongs above the pre-text white space, right? To see this principle in action, let’s pretend our ongoing example is fiction (which it isn’t; my middle school honestly was pelted with migratory spiders) and place the narrator’s name in the traditional spot:

new chapter with name

That’s the way one would handle the matter in a multiple POV manuscript like, say, Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, where the narrator changes with the chapter. If there were also a chapter title (perhaps not advisable in this case, as there’s already significant information at the top of that page for the reader to absorb), it would go between the chapter heading and the narrator identifier.

The important thing here is to be consistent — and that’s not always easy. Most seasoned authors probably wouldn’t appreciate my revealing a working secret, but pretty much everyone worries that someday her will forget to hit return one of the necessary times, so that Chapter 5 will begin — gasp! — twelve lines from the top, while Chapter 1-4 and 6 on will begin fourteen lines down.

Gives you the willies even to contemplate how Millicent might react to that level of formatting inconsistency, doesn’t it? Double-check each and every chapter opening before you submit; trust me, you’ll be happier in the long run.

Oh, my — that was an unpopular suggestion, wasn’t it? Fully a third of you have your hands waving impatiently in the air. “That would be absurdly time-consuming, Anne,” the irate third huff. “Oh, I understand that the chapter number or title needs to appear at the top of the first page and each subsequent chapter; I’m perfectly happy to leave six double-spaced blank lines between it and the first line of text, so the first paragraph starts seven lines down. But surely there’s an easier way to do this — a template or something? Perhaps Word has some sort of default setting I can employ so I need never worry about the issue again as long as I live?”

Standard format templates do exist, now that you mention it, but frankly, Word is already equipped with two perfectly dandy features for reproducing formatting exactly in more than one place in a document: COPY and PASTE.

In other words, create your own template. It’s very simple to do: just copy from “Chapter One” down through the first line of text, then paste it on the first page of Chapter 2, 3, etc. Once the format is in place, it’s a snap to fill in the information appropriate to the new chapter.

Oh, dear — now another group of you have raised your hands. Yes? “But Anne,” exclaim those of you who favor switching narrator (or place, or time) more often than once per chapter, “we are, as we believe the tag line identifying us as speakers just mentioned, advocates of those nifty mid-chapter signposts that we see all the time in published books, boldfaced notifications that the time, place, or speaker has just changed. How would I format that in a manuscript?”

You’re talking about incorporating subheadings into a novel, right? Or at least what would be a subheading in a nonfiction manuscript: a section break followed by a new title.

I’m fully prepared to answer this question, of course, if only to show all of you nonfiction writers out there what your subheadings should look like. Before I do, however, I’d like to ask novelists interested in adopting this strategy a quick question: are you absolutely positive that you want to do that?

That’s not an entirely flippant question, you know. There are plenty of Millicents out there who have been trained by old-fashioned agents — and even more editorial assistants who work for old-fashioned editors. And that’s important to know, because even in an age when mid-chapter subheadings aren’t all that uncommon in published books, there are still plenty of professional readers whose knee-jerk response to seeing ‘em is invariably, “What is this, a magazine article? In my day, fiction writers used language to indicate a change in time or place, rather than simply slapping down a subheading announcing it; if they wanted to indicate a change of point of view, they would either start a new chapter, find a graceful way to introduce the shift into the text, or have the narrative voice change so markedly that the shift would be immistakable! O tempore! O mores!

I just mention.

To this ilk of pros, the practice of titling a section, or even a chapter, with clear indicators of time, place, or speaker will always seem to be indicative of a show, don’t tell problem. And you have to admit, they sort of have a point: novelists have been indicating changes of time and space by statements such as The next day, back at the ranch… ever since the first writer put pen to paper, right?

As a result, fiction readers expect to see such orienting details emerge within the course of the narrative, rather than on top of it. Most of the time, this information isn’t all that hard to work into a narrative — and if a novelist is looking to please a tradition-hugging agent or editor, that’s probably a better strategy to embrace, at least at the submission stage. As with any other authorial preference for how a published book should look, you can always try to negotiate an editorial change of heart after a publisher acquires your novel.

At least if you don’t happen to write in a book category that routinely uses such subheadings. If recent releases in your book category are crammed with the things, don’t worry your pretty little head about editorial reaction to ‘em. An editor — or agent, Millicent, or contest judge — who routinely handles books in that category may be trusted to realize that you’re simply embracing the norms of your genre.

Millicents tend to approve of that. It shows that the submitter has taken the time to become conversant with what’s being published these days in the category within which he has chosen to write.

Which is to say: these days, plenty of very good fiction writers prefer to alert the reader to vital shifts with titles and subheadings. And nonfiction writers have been using them for decades; in fact, they’re more or less required in a book proposal. (More insight on those follows later in this series, I promise.) I just didn’t want any of you to be shocked if the agent of your dreams sniffs in the early days after signing you, “Mind taking out these subheadings? Seven of the ten editors to whom I’m planning to submit this hate them, and I’d rather be spared yet another lecture on the pernicious influence of newspapers and magazine formatting upon modern literature, okay?”

All that being said — and now that I’ve completely unnerved those of you who are considering submitting manuscripts with subheadings — you do need to know how to do it properly.

It’s quite straightforward, actually: a subheading is just a section break followed by a left-justified title. The text follows on the next double-spaced line.

Want to see that in action? Okay. Just to annoy traditionalists who draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction writing, let’s take a peek at a nonfiction page by a well-respected novelist:

Wharton subheading example

That caused some bloodshot eyes to pop wide open, didn’t it? “But Anne!” the detail-oriented exclaim, “that subheading is in BOLDFACE! Didn’t the rules of standard format specifically tell me never, under any circumstances, to boldface anything in my manuscript?”

Well caught, sharp-eyed ones: boldfacing the subheading does indeed violate that particular stricture of standard format. However, since nonfiction manuscripts and proposals have been routinely boldfacing subheadings (and only subheadings) for over a decade now — those crotchety old-fashioned editors are partially right about the creeping influence of article practices into the book world, you know — I thought that you should know about it.

It’s definitely not required, though; Millicent is unlikely to scowl at a nonfiction submission that doesn’t bold its subheadings. Like font choice, you make your decision, you take your chances.

In a fiction submission, though, I definitely wouldn’t advise it; traditionalists lurk in much, much higher concentrations on the fiction side of the industry, after all. Here’s the same page, formatted as fiction — and since we’re already talking about exceptions to the rules, let’s make this example a trifle more instructive by including a date and time in the subheading:

Wharton example2

Unsure why I used numerals in the subheading, rather than writing out all of the numbers under a hundred, as standard format usually requires? Full dates, like specific times and currency, are rendered in numeric form in manuscripts. Thus, I paid $14.17 for a train ticket at 12:45 a.m. on November 3, 1842, officer is correct; I paid fourteen dollars and seventeen cents for a train ticket at twelve forty-five a.m. on November three, eighteen hundred and forty-two is not. (It would, however, be perfectly permissible to include quarter to one in the afternoon on November third.)

Everybody clear on all of that that? Now would be a dandy time to start waving your hand at the Format Queen, if not.

Next time, we shall be continuing our in-depth look at chapter openings. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza has landed!

lunar landing

That’s right, campers: we’re rounding out this autumn of ‘Paloozas with arguably the most important one of all, a step-by-step guide to standard format, the way that book manuscripts should look on a page-by-page basis. Because yes, Virginia, there are professional standards, and once per year, I like to tell my readers about ‘em.

What? No public rejoicing? “Manuscript formatting?” I hear many an aspiring writer grumbling. “What on earth does that have to do with landing an agent and/or getting my book published?”

Plenty, actually; submitting a professionally-formatted manuscript gives an aspiring writer a competitive advantage in submission. And this time around, because some of you asked so nicely, I’m going to be devoting a few posts specifically to the ins and outs of formatting — and punctuating — dialogue.

Why concentrate on dialogue this time around? Well, remember my mentioning that a hefty percentage of the aspiring writers of North America tend to gird their loins, ratchet up their nerves, and send out queries and requested materials in early January of each year, in fulfillment of New Year’s resolutions to get cracking on getting published? These same resolutions lead freelance editors’ desks, or at any rate their e-mail inboxes, to groan under the weight of clients eager to seek their counsel, both at the close of the old year and the opening of the new. It’s also the time of year when we can get a preview of what Millicent the agency screener is likely to see for the next twelve to fifteen months.

I can already tell you the coming year’s trend: first- and tight third-person narratives in which other characters speak and the narrator thinks within the same paragraph. Last year, it was not double-spacing manuscripts; the year before, it was not indenting paragraphs.

And once again, Millicents all over New York will be shaking their heads, muttering, “What on earth made anyone think this was proper? Did I miss a bestseller that broke this particular rule?”

Yet virtually every time I mention to my fellow professional readers that many, if not most, aspiring writers are not fully aware of how a manuscript should be formatted — or, indeed, that such a thing as standard format exists, they tend to chortle with disbelief. “Oh, come on, Anne,” they scoff. “Anyone serious about getting published would have done his homework about that. Besides, the formatting isn’t really the problem for most of those writers. Most of the manuscripts you’re talking about would have gotten rejected by agencies, anyway; the ones who don’t double-space tend not to spell-check, either.”

And that, incidentally, is what a mixed-use dialogue paragraph in a first-person narrative looks like. In a novel, it tends to run like this:

Kyra laughed. “Over my dead body.” I thought about that for a moment. Not such a terrible idea.

“That could be arranged,” I said, much to her evident annoyance.

“No, but seriously, Ermintrude, I can’t let you take that book out from my library.” I raised my eyebrows at her. “What part of non-circulating collection don’t you understand?”

As opposed to the classic — and much clearer, logistically speaking — tradition of limiting each speaker/actor to distinct and separate paragraphs, so the formatting itself makes it plain who is speaking when:

Kyra laughed. “Over my dead body.”

Not such a terrible idea. “That could be arranged.”

The minuscule muscles at the side of her right eye twitched with annoyance. “No, but seriously, Ermintrude, I can’t let you take that book out from my library. What part of non-circulating collection don’t you understand?”

Easier for a skimming eye to follow what’s going on, isn’t it? Now, there’s no question of who is speaking — or acting — when; every twitch is easily attributable to the proper twitcher. We’re going to be talking about this dynamic, as well as other tips for dialogue formatting and clarity, later in this series.

But I digress from my composite discussion with other professional manuscript-readers. “But what about the ones who do spell-check?” I ask my cynical colleagues, “and proof-read, and take the time to get feedback on their work before sending it out? Improper formatting can as easily be the result of simple ignorance as of authorial laziness. I’m constantly meeting good writers new to the biz who haven’t the vaguest idea about what a professional manuscript looks like, for the exceedingly simple reason that they’ve never seen one.”

More scoffing around the table in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. One of the freelance editors might even trot out that old agents’ truism: “If a writer’s serious about getting published, he’ll take the time to learn what the formatting norms are. There are books that explain how to do it.”

“Not to mention your blog, Anne,” another quips, invariably. “How often are you revisiting the rules of standard format these days? Once a year? Twice?”

Actually, it used to be three, back in the dark days before I learned to keep reminding all of you, campers, to check the archive category list conveniently located on lower right-hand side of this page the early and often. (Speaking of formatting, how do folks like the new, improved, ostensibly easier-to-use format on the archive listings? Over the years, many of you had asked for the categories to be organized with headings.)

I feel that my colleagues are engaging in a bit of buck-passing. “I’m not denying that it’s possible to learn how to do it right; I’m just pointing out that most of the time, the writers whose manuscripts get rejected unread because of formatting problems have no idea that they’re not getting rejected on the writing itself.” Half the table looks skeptical. “Okay, fine — let’s do a little survey. Hands up: how many of you would read a single-spaced manuscript, if a potential client sent it to you? Or even one-and-a-half spacing? What about non-indented paragraphs?”

Crickets.

And that, my friends, should tell you a lot about just how seriously people who read manuscripts for a living take the norms of standard format. Even amongst the open-minded, there is a deep, pervasive prejudice against manuscripts that don’t look right cosmetically. Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, Mehitabel the contest judge: all of these readers who must approve a manuscript before it can impress an agent, get picked up by a publisher, or make the finals of a contest are so conditioned to expect professional formatting that when they see a submission that deviates from the rules in any significant respect, they tend to assume, as did the hypothetical tableful of editors above, that the writer is falling down on the job in other respects.

What does that mean in practical terms? Usually, that incorrectly-formatted manuscripts and contest entries are rejected on sight — and, in many cases, unread.

Why? Well, think about it: it’s one of the easiest ways conceivable to narrow the submission pool — which is job #1 for Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel, right? Do the math: if the average agent receives 800-1500 queries per week and agrees to read even five percent of the manuscripts (high for most agents, by the way), that’s 40-60 manuscripts per week, and thus somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000-3,000 per year.

Since even a very successful agent could take on, at most, 4-5 new clients per year, Millicent had better narrow down that applicant pool, pronto, hadn’t she? So had Maury. So had Mehitabel, since no matter how good a crop of contest entries is, there are generally only a fixed, small number of finalist slots. They’ve got to rule manuscripts out.

Isn’t it fortunate for them, then, that the vast majority of submitters present their writing unprofessionally?

Did some of you just do a double-take? Yes, Virginia, most submissions are incorrectly formatted. They either resemble published books (which is not correct for a manuscript submission), are submitted in short story format (ditto), or look like whatever the submitter happens to think looks nice on the page (extrapolate the answer from the previous two).

All of which makes Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel shout, “Hallelujah,” especially of late, when both query and submission rates have been skyrocketing. Writing a book has always been plan B for a lot of people — with the economy in its current state, many folks seem to be pulling partially-finished manuscripts out of desk drawers these days. (Okay, off their hard disks, but it amounts to the same thing.) The timing’s a tad unfortunate, since this is also a period where publishing houses have been laying off editors and other staff.

Translation: you know how fierce the competition to get picked up by an agent already was before the economy went south? It’s become even tougher.

While those of you who already suffering from query or submission fatigue are still reeling from the implications of that last statement, let me slip a few hard facts under the noses of those who have yet to submit for the first time:

(1) There is a an expected standard format to which US-based agents and editors expect book-length submissions and book proposals to adhere, regardless of whether those manuscripts are produced by seasoned pros with many book sales under their belts or those brand-new to the biz, and thus

(2) while deviating from standard format in a small way (or, more commonly, in a multiplicity of small ways) will not necessarily result in knee-jerk rejection, it does tend to prompt those who read manuscripts for a living to take the manuscript less seriously, on the assumption that an aspiring writer who has not taken the time to learn about standard format probably has not honed her craft much yet, either. Given the pervasiveness of this attitude,

(3) using fancy typefaces, including cover artwork, printing manuscript pages on colored paper, and/or any other deviations from standard format in one’s submission is most emphatically not regarded as interesting expressions of the author’s individual point of view, but rather as evidence that the author doesn’t know about (1). On the bright side,

(4) manuscripts submitted in standard format tend to be treated with substantially more respect by agency screeners, editorial assistants, contest judges, and pretty much everyone who happens to read unpublished prose for a living. Despite this fact,

(5) one does occasionally hear agents and editors ask for deviations from standard format; in these cases, an aspiring writer should definitely give them precisely what they ask to see. However,

(6) it’s never advisable to generalize from what one individual says s/he wants into a brand-new trend sweeping the industry. Nor is it a good idea to ape the formatting choices one sees in a published book, because

(7) book manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, for many excellent, practical reasons that I shall be explaining at length throughout this ‘Palooza. That being the case, professional tend to draw unfavorable conclusions about submissions that do aspire to book formatting, much as they do when aspiring writers are not aware that

(8) standard format for book-length manuscripts is not business format and just using what you learned about short stories won’t do, either. Nor is it necessarily identical to what your word processor’s grammar checker will ask you to do, or even the AP style one sees in newspapers and magazines. None of these will look correct to an agent or editor who deals with book manuscripts, because the norms there are very specific.

This may seem nit-picky and irrelevant to the quality of the writing in question, but think about it: if a host asks you to a formal dinner, it’s only polite to wear formal attire; a guest who shows up in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt is going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. (If it’s not clear to you why that might be problematic, review point 2.) Similarly,

(9) when placed side-by-side with professional manuscripts, as a successful submission inevitably will be, a wackily put-together manuscript will stand out as unprofessional, a phenomenon that all too often leads to

(10) most manuscript submissions getting rejected on page 1. Not always because they deviates from standard format — although, had I not yet made this point sufficiently, the vast majority of submissions do — but because an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript already has one strike against it, and who needs that? Ultimately,

(11) it’s just not worth your while to try to fudge your way out of these standards, since the price of a submission’s annoying a professional reader can be so high. And no matter how many times my readers, students, and editing clients ask me if agents, editors, and contest judges are REALLY serious about them, I’m not going to give you permission to ignore any single one of the standard format strictures. No way. Stop asking, already.

Why might knowing all this — and, more importantly, acting upon this knowledge — translate into higher acceptance rates? Well, the aspiring writer who acts upon this information conscientiously is probably producing submissions within the top 2% of what crosses Millicent’s desk on any given day.

Yes, really, Virginia; stop looking at me with those doubtful, pleading eyes. If any of the information on the list above came as a surprise to you in any way, it’s incredibly important that you should join me on a tiptoe through the intricacies of standard format.

In case I’ve been too subtle so far about why: agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not).

I implore those of you who have been through this material with me before: please don’t just skip these posts on standard format. I see manuscripts all the time by experienced albeit unpublished writers that contain serious standard format violations; heck, these problems occasionally turn up in the work of published writers, if the complaints their agents and editors make in those bars that are never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America are to be believed.

All of us could use a review from time to time — say, the once per year I bring the matter up here. Because, you see, I am far from the only professional reader who takes umbrage, when manuscripts deviate from certain time-honored restrictions. Believe me, Millicent started twitching at the very sight of them before she’d had her job three weeks.

Yes, even if the formatting in question would be perfectly legitimate in other writing environments. (See points 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8 above, for instance.) And yes, yes, oh, yes, even if the deviation is precisely what some agent, editor, writing guru, or darned fool writing expert like me has suddenly announced to the world is the new norm.

Millicent didn’t get that memo.

Why would she, unless she happens to work for the agent-who-blogs or editor-who-is-trying-to-be-helpful who promulgated the new advice? Indeed, why would anyone who works with manuscripts for a living go out looking to see what folks outside the industry — or, at minimum, outside her agency — are demanding of writers these days, when the basics of standard format have actually changed very little for decades?

Oh, should I have numbered that one?

Actually, it would be very much against her self-interest to go trolling for such information, because — chant it with me now, veterans of my previous forays into standard format’s underlying logic — it’s so much easier just to assume that submissions that don’t adhere to standard format are inherently unprofessional, and thus (by implication) less likely to contain writing destined to take the publishing world by storm.

To put it bluntly, not relying upon this convenient assumption would slow her per-submission rejection time. As I hope anyone who has been ‘Palooza-ing this autumn is already aware, the fine folks who read submissions (and queries) in order to decide who gets a break and who doesn’t are in a hurry.

Remember the stats above; these people have a heck of a lot of reading to do. In the face of that many pieces of paper to plow through, even the reading of eagerly-solicited submissions tends to be awfully rushed: the goal becomes to weed out as many as possible as quickly as possible, rather than seeking out gems. Once a professional reader like Millicent has been at it for a while, s/he will usually develop a knack for coming to a conclusion about a piece of writing within the first paragraph or two.

Sometimes even within the first line or two. (For a fairly frightening run-down of the common first-page rejection reasons, you might want to check out the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the list at right.)

Unfortunately for writers unaware of the rules, a non-standard manuscript is child’s play to spot from the moment a professional reader lays eyes upon it. That can be an extremely serious problem for a submission, because — wait for it — being identified as not professionally formatted renders it FAR more likely to be rejected.

Why? Shout it with me now: agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that a screener’s primary goal is to weed out the one she is reading at the moment.

The faster she can do that, the better, to move through that mountain of paper on her desk. So a first page that cries out the moment Millicent claps eyes upon it, “This writer is brand-new to the game and will require quite a bit of your boss’ time to coach into being able to produce a manuscript that an agent would be comfortable submitting to an editor!” is an outright gift to her: she can feel completely comfortable rejecting it at the very first typo, cliché, or word choice she doesn’t happen to like.

Heck, she might not even wait to spot any of the above. She might just say, “Oh, look — single-spacing. Next!”

What does this trigger-happiness mean for aspiring writers who scoff at standard format, or just don’t know about it? Right now, Harry Houdini himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on extricating oneself from tight situations. (And if that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your industry-speak.)

This dark, dark cloud is not without its proverbial silver lining, however. By logical extension, the more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be read with interest by a screener in a hurry.

See now why aspiring writers cognizant of points (1) – (11) might enjoy a considerable competitive advantage at submission time? So to help give you that edge, I’m going to start running though the rules of standard format — and no, Virginia, none of them are negotiable. Stop asking, I tell you.

(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.

No exceptions, unless an agent or editor (or a contest’s rules) specifically asks you to do otherwise. And I’m dead serious about using only white paper: ecru paper, no off-white, no Dr. Seuss-type stripes.

Yes, buff or parchment can look very nice, now that you happen to mention it, Virginia, but there’s a strategic reason to use bright white paper. Very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader out there, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.

The only colored paper that should ever go anywhere near a manuscript is the single sheet that separates one copy of a submission or book proposal from the next, so it is easy for an agent to see where to break the stack. (But you don’t need to know about that until your agent asks you to send 15 copies of your book for submitting to editors. Put it out of your mind for now.)

Nice, clear, dark print is optimal here, so do spring for a new printer cartridge. You’d be amazed (at least, I hope you would) at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions; I’ve seem pages that looked as though the writer dunked them in a swiftly-flowing river several times before popping them in the mail.

Which is sad, because submissions with poor print quality are — you’re ahead of me on this one, aren’t you? — almost never read.

Speaking of never, never, ever, eversubmit a dim photocopy; print out an original every time. Oh, you may chuckle at the notion of sending out a grainy photocopy, but believe me, any contest judge has seen many, many entries submitted that way.

Mehitabel likes them, actually: for every one that pops up, her reading time is shortened. Any guesses why?

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way (again, unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise)

Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the literally millions of pages of submissions that go flying into the agencies and publishing houses every month. I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory.

Also, writers would all be granted an extra month a year in which to write, excellent and inexpensive child care while writing, a cedar-lined cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan in which to do it, and a pineapple upside-down cake on Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. Perhaps some hard candies on Truman Capote’s birthday as well, in affluent years, and dancing on Mme. de Staël’s.

But since the unhappy reality is that I do not run the universe, we shall all have to live with the status quo. Which is to say: the publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

Unbound means precisely what it says: no binding of any kind. You’d be surprised at how often writers violate the thou-shalt-not-bind rule, including paper clips, rubber bands, or even binders with their submissions. Since agents always circulate manuscripts without any sort of binding, these doohickeys just scream, “I’m unfamiliar with the industry.”

SASE, open wide: here comes a returned manuscript.

The only exception to this rule is a nonfiction book proposal — not the manuscript, mind you, just the proposal. Proposals are typically presented unbound in a black folder, the kind with horizontal pockets. (For tips, please see the aptly-titled HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK PROPOSAL category at right.)

Which doesn’t mean that you aren’t perfectly welcome to print double-sided or bind copies for your own purposes; just don’t show your work to the pros that way. As Author! Author!’s very first commenter Dave tends to chime in — and helpfully — whenever I bring this up, if you wish to make double-sided, 3-hole-punched, be-bindered drafts for circulating to your first readers for ease of toting around, that’s a dandy idea.

But never submit in that manner to a professional reader unless s/he has asked you to do so. Trust me on this one.

(3) The text should be left-justified, not block-justified, as published books, e-mails, business letters, and online writing tend to be.

Many fledgling writers find (3) nearly impossible to accept, as it is one of the most visually obvious ways in which a professional manuscript differs from a printed book. They believe, wrongly, that anything that makes their submission look more like what’s on the shelves at Barnes & Noble is inherently professional.

In practice, quite the opposite is true. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program can replicate that practically effortlessly, if you ask it nicely to do so. Bully for it.

But don’t take advantage of that pleasing capacity, I beg you: the straight margin should be the left one; the right should be ragged, as if you had produced the manuscript on a typewriter.

Translation: the left margin should be straight; the right margin should not. In practice, that means that the left margin will be exactly 1 inch, while the right margin will be no less than an inch on any given line of text. Similarly, while the top margin should be exactly 1 inch, the bottom margin will typically be slightly more, because the spacing between lines of text needs to be constant. (You actually don’t need to fret over measuring any of this out, if you are using MS Word: just set the margins all around to 1″ and the spacing to double, and you will end up with a standard 23-line manuscript page.)

Fear not if you’re having trouble picturing this: I shall be showing you abundant concrete examples later in this series. For now, you’re just going to have to trust me when I tell you that block-justifying your submission is going to appeal to your garden-variety Millicent about as much as a pie in the face.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New; pick one and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Yes, Virginia, even if you have a strong preference for the lettering in your book when it is published. Why? Shout it with me now: MANUSCRIPTS AND PUBLISHED BOOKS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO LOOK THE SAME.

So use one of these typefaces for submission purposes — unless, of course, an agency’s submission guidelines specifically ask for something different. There are a few agents out there who have their own font preferences (usually Courier, and usually because they also represent screenplays), so do check their websites and/or listings in the standard agency guides. As ever, the golden rule of dealing with an agent you want to represent you is give them precisely what they ask to see, not what you would like them to see.

Personally, I would never dream of allowing an editing client of mine to submit a manuscript in anything but Times New Roman, nor would I ever submit any of my work in anything else. It is the standard typeface of the publishing industry, just as Courier is the norm of screenwriting.

A tad silly, you say? Perhaps, but it’s one of the bizarre facts of publishing life that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously, and with good reason: these are the typefaces upon which the most commonly-used word count estimations are based. (Psst: if you don’t know why you should be estimating the length of your manuscript rather than using actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

I hear you grumbling, lovers of interesting typefaces. Yes, most published books are in typefaces other than Times or Courier — but typeface decisions for published books are made by the publishing house, not the author. Submission time is not the appropriate period for making your preferences known.

If you’re very nice down the line, after a publishing house has acquired your book, they may listen to your suggestions. They may giggle a little, true, but they might listen. Ditto with the cover and the title, which are — brace yourselves — almost never under the author’s control.

Why? Because these are matters of packaging and marketing, not content.

All of which begs the question, of course: why do word processing programs tempt us so many typefaces from which to choose, if we’re not supposed to use them?

Answer: because the people who make word processing programs are not the same people who decide what books get published in North America. Which is why, in case you’re wondering, what Microsoft Word means by word count and what the average agent or editor does are not typically the same thing.

Fair warning: if you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Yes, one sees this in a published book occasionally, but I assure you, the choice to indulge in these formatting differences was the editor’s, not the author’s.

Sorry. See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.

I’m sensing a bit of dissention out there, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Almost invariably, around the time that I bring up Rule #4, someone posts a comment informing me huffily that website X advises something different, that this agent said at a conference she doesn’t care what typeface you use, that a certain manual said that standards have changed from the traditional guidelines I set out here, or some other observation presumably intended to make me rend my garments and cry, “Finally, I see the error of my ways! I guess I’ll disregard the fact that I’ve never seen the change you mention actually in use in a professional manuscript and declare it to be the new norm!”

To save you the trouble and sound like a broken record at the same time: it’s not gonna happen.

I have no doubt that all of these comments are indeed pointing out legitimate differences in advice, but it is not my purpose here to police the net for standardization of advice. If you like guidelines you find elsewhere better, by all means follow them.

All I claim for these rules — and it is not an insubstantial claim — is that nothing I advise here will ever strike a U.S.-based agent or editor as unprofessional. Even if any give agent, editor, or contest judge should happen to harbor personal preferences for other formatting choices, anyone who has been in the biz for a while will recognize pages in standard format as the industry norm.

In other words, adhering to these rules will mean that your writing is going to be judged on your writing, not your formatting. And that, my friends, is nothing at which to sneeze.

More of the rules of standard format follow next time, of course, as well as acres more explanation. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza VII: framing Jack O. Lantern’s smiling authorial face

grinning pumpkin 2

I’m smiling myself this morning, campers, although not quite as widely as Jack. Congratulate me, for I am officially the Nicest Lady in the Neighborhood, a title I hope to hold until next Halloween rolls around. How did I score this enviable title? Well, I am usually in the running: ours is the only house within a multi-block radius that gives out full-size candy bars. (You should see the look on the little ones’ faces when they first clap eyes on our candy tray.)

This year, however, we also had the dubious distinction of being one of the only houses in the neighborhood giving out candy at all. Blame the economy, not the neighbors, I say, but naturally, it was hard for the kids to understand. So I told them that if they went away for half an hour and came up with a story about the characters they were impersonating for the night, they could each have another three candy bars. One especially creative ninja reappeared three times, each with a different tale to tell.

I heard some great stories. Score one for the future writers of America, and a big loss for dental hygiene.

Back to business. I’m going to be wrapping up author bios and photos today, tying up a few loose ends and answering a few perennial first-time autobiographers’ lingering questions. Since this is my last Authorbiopalooza post — presuming that no one posts a magnificently insightful follow-up question as a comment over the next few days, hint, hint — I’m going to seize the opportunity to say something vital just one more time, for the benefit of all you procrastinators out there.

broken-recordPlease, I implore you, do not put off writing at least a viable first draft of your bio until the day after an agent or editor has actually asked you to provide one. Set aside some time to do it soon.

Why? Because unless an agency’s submission guidelines ask for a bio up front, chances are, the request to provide one is going to come swooping down at you out of a pellucidly blue sky. Tossed out as an afterthought just after you’ve given the best pitch in the history of Western civilization, for instance, or when the agent who fell in love with your first 50 pages asks to see the rest of the book. It will seem like good news — until you realize that you need to come up with a bio within the next forty-eight hours.

On that happy day, you will be a much, much happier human being in every way if you already have at least the beginnings of a great bio sitting on your hard drive. Trust me on this one.

To that end, may I suggest that those of you involved in writers’ groups — critique-based or support; in either case, good for you — devote part of a meeting to brainstorming about and giving feedback on one another’s bios? Or query letters, for that matter? And what about synopses?

Don’t look at me so blankly. Why wouldn’t a success-oriented group of writers want to invest time in mutual critique of marketing materials? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: every single sentence on every single page in a query or submission packet is a writing sample. It all needs to be polished.

It also, at the risk of starting up that broken record player, all needs to be interesting — and that’s where a little outside perspective can be very helpful. Yet even very market-focused critique groups seldom set aside time for mutual bio critique. A trifle mystifying to me, as a session devoted to it can be a whole lot of fun, as well as very useful indeed.

Besides, how much do you really know about that sharp-eyed person who keeps barking at you to show, not tell?

Speaking of great questions (yes, I know; I was speaking of it several paragraphs ago, but humor me here), let’s get right to the promised answers to past reader questions on bio-related points. Yes, shorter versions of these answers are already available elsewhere on this site, but since the comments are not searchable from your side of the site and not everyone reads the comment strings — especially, I notice, whilst perusing the archives — I wanted to have all of this information gathered in one place, all ready to pop up in a site search using that nifty search engine located in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

I love readers’ questions, because, frankly, you clever souls often come up with angles it would not otherwise have occurred to me to pursue. Those of us who have been staring at bios, queries, synopses, and professionally-formatted manuscripts for years may be able to tell in an instant how the page in front of us is not right, but since we have such a strong mental image of what the right format, for instance, is, we seldom invest time in considering how someone who had never seen a successful author bio formatted for submission, for example, might picture it.

That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I so often encourage my readers to ask challenging questions of agents and editors at conferences: the question that’s been bugging you for months might not be one a speaker would know to include in her talk. So for heaven’s sake, ask; it’s good for everybody concerned.

To illustrate, here is a question from intrepid reader Doug about how a writer using a pen name might approach the bio. Specifically,

Is the author’s name one’s pseudonym (when applicable)? Both in the heading and in the text?

This is a great question, Doug, one that I’m positive perplexes many a pseudonymous writer. To make sure that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, what Doug is inquiring about is the boldfaced author name at the top of the bio, as well as how to refer to the author within the bio itself. To borrow an example from last time, so we may see how the author’s name dots the page:

Ste. Cecile author bio2

In the bio, the author’s name should be the same as it is on the title page and in the slug line; it’s confusing if they’re different. So if you’ve decided to use a pseudonym under the By… part of the title page (as opposed to the contact info, which should use the name to which you’d prefer to have your royalty checks made out), be consistent throughout your query or submission packet.

You want to see that in action, don’t you? Fair enough.

pen name title page

If Arthur Worrieswhathisrelativeswillthink were to write an author bio — and he would definitely need to do so, even for a memoir, despite the fact that the entire manuscript could be construed as a bio — he has a choice: he can either show his real name on the bio, or he can list his pen name, Unabashed R. Pseudonym, as long as it is the name he uses (a) appears on the title page, as we’ve seen above, and (b) is the name in the slug line at the top of every manuscript page. In a first book, it’s usually more prudent to use one’s real name, so that contracts — like, say, the representation agreement Arthur wants the agent of his dreams to offer him — are made out properly.

One’s agent does, after all, have to know one’s real identity. So unless you are an international man of mystery fleeing justice (which would look terrific in a bio), it doesn’t really make sense to use a pseudonym at all at the querying or submission stage.

Think about it: a writer using a pen name doesn’t actually have to commit to it until after a publisher has already acquired the book. Both the representation contract and the publication contract are under the author’s legal name (although the publication contract may well stipulate the use of a pseudonym), so unless you feel that

(a) using your real name might somehow harm the book’s chances with the agent of your dreams (Begrunga Nevercleansherkitchen would be a lousy name for a cookbook writer, for instance),

(b) you already have something published in a different book category under your real name and want to avoid confusion, or

(c) you don’t want to tip Interpol off to your whereabouts,

you don’t really need to stress about the pseudonym issues until later on. Give your pretty little head a rest; you wouldn’t want your eyes to look tired in your author photo.

Everybody clear on that? Excellent. Here’s a thought-provoking question from long-time reader Gordon:

I’m not sure how to word this, but I’ll try – should an author bio written by an unpublished (in any media) writer include what you call ‘promotional parts’? Meaning life connections with the novel’s subject matter. As a youngster in his seventies there have been many twists and turns in my life. Should one’s bio chronologically hit the high points or mainly focus on the ones pertinent to the novel being submitted?

You did fine on the self-expression front, Gordon. The short answer is yes, on both counts.

Well, glad to have cleared THAT up. Moving along…

I didn’t really fool you there, did I? Especially since those of you who have been following Authorbiopalooza closely undoubtedly immediately cried, “Wait, Anne dealt with this in an earlier post. Perhaps she is trying, albeit clumsily, to drive home the point that good questions from readers help to expand the range of her posts.”

Well, I like to think so; I am, after all, the Nicest Lady in the Neighborhood, and this is an extremely common writerly conundrum. Let’s tackle it directly.

The direct answer: it depends.

To be specific, which way one should fall on the choice between devoting one’s bio to a chronological account of the highlights of one’s life as, say, an obituary might tell it (sorry, but it’s the obvious analogy) vs. creating the impression that every significant event in one’s life was leading inevitably to the writing of this book and no other depends largely upon several factors, including:

a) whether there are events in one’s life that are legitimately related to the subject matter of the book in question — and if they are easy for the reader to follow without too many logical leaps.

If mentioning a particular life experience would tend to make you a more credible source, it’s usually to your advantage to include it in your bio, to differentiate yourself from any other yahoo who might just have been guessing what that particular experience was like. Expressive Q. Author visited the Statue of Liberty once, when Expressive’s protagonist passes through Ellis Island briefly in Chapter Two, is a stretch; Expressive Q. Author spent twenty years as a merchant marine, when his entire plotline takes place on a pirate ship, is not.

b) whether one has genuinely lead a life that would produce a couple of entertaining paragraphs, regardless of connection to the book.

It never hurts to sound darned interesting in your bio. However — and in practice, this is a BIG however — writers of purely chronological bios often…how shall I put this delicately…overestimate the detail in which a rushed industry type might want to hear the life story of someone she has never met.

Remember, Millicent the agency screener reads a lot of bios; keep yours snappy.

If you’re in doubt whether yours is leaning toward overkill, hand your bio to someone who doesn’t know you particularly well (having asked politely for his assistance first, of course; don’t just accost a stranger) and have him read it through twice. Buy the cooperative soul a cup of coffee, and around the time that your cup begins to seem light in your hand, ask your guinea pig to tell your life story back to you uninterrupted.

The points that he can’t reproduce without prompting are probably inherently less memorable than the ones he can recount in glowing detail. Ask yourself about the ones left out or garbled: they honestly helping you look interesting and/or credible?

c) in the lucky instance where both (a) and (b) are genuinely true, whether the wealth of interesting biographical detail threatens to render the connections to the book less memorable.

When in doubt, lean toward the directly applicable; it’s more important information for the marketing department.

Remember, the point of an author bio is not to tell your life story — that’s what post-publication interviews and memoirs are for, right? — nor to include all of the things that you would like total strangers who pick up volumes in a future bookstore to know about you. The goal in a query or submission bio is to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question. Or, in the case of nonfiction, to write the book being proposed.

Everyone clear on the relevant distinctions? Good. Let’s move on to another question. Another long-term reader, Cerredwyn, wrote in to ask,

Does an author photo need to be a head shot?

No, it doesn’t — as long as you are identifiable (“That’s she, officer. That’s the author of the book!“) and the background isn’t too busy, you can certainly use a broader shot.

In fact, as Elinor Glyn’s author photo for IT clearly demonstrates, a head-and-torso shot is perfectly acceptable, and actually a bit more common on jacket flaps than the pure headshot.

However, 1/2, 3/4, and even full standing shots are not unheard-of. John Irving’s early works tended to have particularly hunky-looking shots from the waist up, for instance.

Not that I noticed as a teenager or anything. I was reading his books for the writing and the stories, I tell you.

If you’re having trouble deciding between different ranges of shot, spend some time in a well-stocked bookstore, taking a gander at the author photos published in books in your chosen book category within the last few years. Not in every new release, mind you, but in books like yours. If you notice an overall trend in styles, you’re not going to offend anyone by submitting something similar.

Oh, and speaking of styles, unless you have written something ultra-hip or happen to be a magazine writer (whose material by definition changes constantly), it’s usually not a great idea to dress in the latest fashion for your author photo — and it’s DEFINITELY not the time to sport a hairstyle that’s not likely to be around a decade hence.

Don’t believe me? Ask any 80s author who embraced a mohawk. Or Elinor Glyn, a decade after the photo above was taken.

Remember, if your book is successful, it will be gracing shelves in private homes, libraries, and book exchanges for even longer than it will be hanging out in Barnes & Noble. A too-trendy style will date the photo. So as a general rule, adorning yourself for your photo with the expectation that the resulting photo will dog you for the rest of your natural life is a good plan.

You also might want to give some thought to how certain colors and patterns photograph — and how a checkered jacket that works beautifully in an 8 x 10 glossy might just look dusty in a 3 x 5 or 2 x 3 (both fairly common sizes for jacket photos). Generally speaking, solids work better than prints, and strong, dark colors on the body are distract less from the face. Bear in mind, too, that black, white, and red sometimes look quite different in print than in real life, and that the eye tends to zoom in on the red and the shiny.

If that’s your lip gloss, great; if it’s your belt, less great. Unless you are trying to find an agent or publisher for a book about belts, that is.

The answer to the next reader question, posed by Jaepu, could be extrapolated from the last paragraph but one, I notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trenchant question. Let’s revisit it, just in case anyone out there was wondering:

Must the author photo be in color?

No, it may be in black and white — in fact, until fairly recently, that was the norm. However, with the rise of digital photography, color author photos have become more common. Do be aware, though, that a black-and-white photo won’t tell an agent whether you might look good in a television interview as well as a color picture would.

The more important issue is photo clarity. You’d be surprised at how many author photos are actually out of focus, presumably because the writer prefers the blurry shot to other, clearer ones. (Either that, or he moves around too quickly to be caught easily on film.)

Nor is this a time to make a funny face, even if you write humor; this is, after all, a photo intended to present you as a professional to be taken seriously. Let’s face it, even if a less-sharp image is genuinely cool, this image of trick-or-treating expert Jack O. Lantern

jekll hyde pumpkin

is simply not as effective a marketing tool as this comparatively mundane smile.

Rick's pumpkin

My apologies to those with low self-esteem, but the author bio photo actually does have to look like you. Not some idealized, air-brushed ideal version of what someone who spends hours on end frantically tapping her thoughts on a keyboard, but you.

Pop quiz: what is good about both of these photos of Jack? (Hint: it has to do with his area of expertise.)

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, he’s depicted in a context that is relevant to the subject matter of his book!” take a candy bar out of the jar. Since Jack is writing about trick-or-treating, what would be a more natural background than his Halloween locale?

In fact, he could even take it a step farther, sacrificing a bit of facial close-up range for a photo that unquestionably establishes him as someone who knows his Halloween doorsteps. As long as his face is clearly visible, a slightly farther-away shot is fine.

cat and pumpkin

Speaking of low self-esteem, a reader apparently too shy to be comfortable with self-identification asked:

I’m all excited about my next book, but I’m marketing my first. Would it be completely tacky to mention what I’m working on now in my bio? What if the books are in different genres?

It’s far from being tacky, Anonymous One; in fact, it’s downright common for a bio to end with a mention of the author’s next writing project. Try to keep it to a single sentence, however, so it does not overpower the rest of the bio.

Lincoln lives in Springfield, Illinois with his wife, eight sons, and golden retriever, Manifest Destiny. He is currently working on his second book, Hey! Where Are You Taking Half of My Country?, a comic memoir covering the Civil War years.

“Yeah, right, Anne,” I hear some of you scoff. “Stop pulling our collective legs. I’ve never seen an author bio on a book jacket that covers future work, or even unpublished work. Bios, like tombstone epitaphs, are always backward-looking, aren’t they?”

Actually, jacket bios that mentioned future projects used to be fairly standard; in the mid-70s, the last line of most dust jacket bios was some flavor of Smith lives in Connecticut, where he is working on his next novel. Gradually, this has been falling out of fashion, perhaps because it implies some faith on the publisher’s part that Smith’s current release will sell well enough that they will WANT him to bring out another. (It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that this particular last sentence fell out of fashion at approximately the same time as multi-book contracts for first-time novelists.)

However, the author bio that an aspiring writer tucks into a query or submission packet and the one that ends up on a dust jacket are not the same thing — as we discussed earlier in Authorbiopalooza, they are intended for the eyes of two different audiences, to create two different impressions. The dust jacket bio is promotional copy aimed at the reader, designed to pique interest and answer basic questions like why should I believe this guy’s NF account of life on the moon? The query or submission bio, by contrast, is designed to impress agents, editors, and their respective Millicents with the author’s claim to be an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Is there an echo in here? I could have sworn that I’ve heard that last bit somewhere before.

Because the submission bio is geared for industry-savvy eyes, mentioning completed book projects in categories other than the one to which the currently-submitted manuscript belongs (try saying THAT three times fast), as the Anonymous Questioner suggested, is a perfectly legitimate use of page space. No need to hawk the other projects; simply mention the book category within the course of a single-sentence description that describes the project as still in progress. As in:

Now nicely recovered from his contretemps with an assassin, Garfield lives in retirement, working on his next book projects, a YA baseball romance and a historical retrospective of his own brief presidency.

Why would Pres. Garfield speak of his completed YA book as a work-in-progress? Strategy, my dears, strategy: it neatly sidesteps the question why isn’t it published? Clever, eh?

Finally, reader Rose inquired:

I’m at a whole single-spaced page, no photo. I have a pro photo, recently taken, that looks great. Would it be better to reduce the bio and add the photo?

I’m querying for a novel, btw — and I’d been under the impression that you shouldn’t submit an author photo when trying to pitch one.

Contrary to the impression Rose has, by her own admission, picked up she knows not where, there is no hard-and-fast rule about whether a fiction writer’s submission bio should to include a photo. No Millicent who has found a submission engaging enough to read all the way to the last page, where the author bio lurks, is going to cast her latte aside in a petulant fit at the sight of a photo, screaming, “Oh, darn — now I have to reject it. I liked that manuscript, too.”

The reason photos are often not included in novelists’ bios is not because they’re unwelcome, but because the burden for gathering marketing materials prior to selling a novel has historically been significantly lower than for a nonfiction book. (If any of you novelists doubt this, take a gander at a book proposal sometime; its many, many pages of marketing material will make you feel much, much better about having to write only a query letter and a synopsis.)

If your photo is pretty ravishing, Rose, I say go ahead and include it. A nice photo does make the bio look a touch more professional, after all, and it’s never a bad thing for an agent or editor to think, “Hey, this author is photogenic!”

Even without the picture, though, it sounds as though Rose’s bio is a bit long for professional purposes: the norm is one DOUBLE-spaced page, or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced under a photo. Yes, one does occasionally hear agents mentioning that they’ve been seeing more single-spaced full-page bios lately — but as I’ve virtually always heard this pronounced with a gnashing of teeth, I’m inclined to regard such statements as complaints, not cries of rapture.

Call me zany, but I tend to interpret moaning as an indication that the moaned-about activity is unwelcome. I’d stick to a more standard length. As with a query letter, when in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Believe me, if your bio is too short, the agent of your dreams will be only to happy to tell you so –after she signs you.

(Don’t cringe: she’s going to want you to change a lot of things after she signs you, no matter how much she initially loved your book or book proposal. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

One last thought on the subject before I sign off for the day: stick to a single page, unless you are specifically asked for something much longer or shorter. (Requests for 1- or 2-paragraph bios aren’t that uncommon.) Beyond that, try not to obsess too much about length. Concentrate instead on sounding fascinating.

Seriously, if, over the years I’ve been a book doctor and particularly over the 5+ years I’ve been answering questions online, someone had given me a nickel for every time an aspiring writer asked me whether the spacing or length of the bio — or query, or synopsis — REALLY mattered, I would have been able to build my own publishing house.

I don’t mean that I would have been able to buy one; I mean that I would have been able to construct the necessary buildings and offices entirely out of coins.

Would it surprise you to hear, then, that even after that many repetitions of the same question, my answer has never changed, no matter how much aspiring writers might have wished it to do so? Or that if I could wave my magic wand and remove all formatting requirements, I probably wouldn’t do it?

Why, I hear you gasp? Because when an author bio — or query letter, or synopsis, or manuscript — is properly formatted, the only bases for judging it have to do with the quality of the writing, the premise’s marketability, whether the professional reader likes it, and so forth.

You know, the bases upon which aspiring writers WANT to be judged.

So yes, agents really tend to hold aspiring writers to the standards of the industry, just as they hold their clients to them. (See earlier comment about one’s dream agent making demands upon one.) They don’t do this to be mean; it’s just that when someone — like, say, Millicent — spends hour after hour, day after day, month after month staring at manuscripts, she’s unlikely not to notice if one is formatted differently than the norm.

As in, for instance, an author bio that doesn’t look like the ones I showed you last time. Even if a single-spaced bio sans photograph does indeed fit onto the requisite single page, thus meeting the bare minimum standard for professionalism, it’s not going to resemble the bios Millicent’s boss is sending out with her clients’ submissions.

Or at least, it probably will not. Naturally, as with any group of human beings, some agents have individual preferences that deviate from the industry standard — the source, I suspect, of Rose’s impression of unspecified origin — and if you can find out what these quirky desires are, you should definitely adhere to them in your submissions to that particular agent. It seldom pays, however, to assume that any one such preference is universal to the industry.

My point is, as annoying as it may be to bring your bios — and queries, synopses, and manuscripts — into line with the most common professional standards is so that Millicent may ignore the formatting and concentrate on what you are SAYING. Because, after all, your aim in your submission bio is not to cram as many facts as you can onto a single page, but to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Yes, you have heard that somewhere before. See, I don’t recommend sticking to the general standards just to be mean, either.

Congratulations, campers: I don’t know whether you have noticed it, but since Labor Day, you have completed a crash course in all of the standard elements of the query and submission packet. Which, in case you are the kind who likes to track such things, makes you more knowledgeable about how to market your writing to agents than roughly 97% of the aspiring writer population.

You should be very, very proud of yourself for taking the time — let’s face it, many of these posts have been hefty — to learn how to present yourself professionally. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part VI: you can tell the truth and nothing but the truth in a synopsis, but you just don’t have the space for the whole truth

I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?

I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?

Brace yourselves, campers: I’m going to be a positive fountain of apologies today. First, I’ve only just noticed that the post that I had scheduled for Thursday afternoon, then gone merrily on my way, assuming I had left you entertained and informed, apparently did not actually go up on Author! Author! until earlier today. I have no idea why. Technically, that is; I know why I took a couple of days off from posting. (Hint: dum de dum dum TO ME.)

Second, I’m sorry about the resolution of the picture above; something went wrong in the uploading process that I didn’t have time to figure out and fix because I’m currently writing on a pretty tight deadline. Third, my regrets about the fact that the dialogue I quoted above does not include the grammatically-necessary quotation marks found in the original text; my blogging program would not allow them in a caption, for some reason best known to its programmers. Fourth, I beg the forgiveness of every L. Frank Baum fan out there: I’ve only just noticed that the quote I used is not from Dorothy’s first visit to the Wizard — the subject of the drawing — but one of her companions’.

Fifth, my profound apologies to those of you who have been following this series on synopsis-writing who happen to be promoting a nonfiction book. Not everything I’ve covered so far in Synopsispalooza has applied to you.

In my defense, like so much of the above, that’s not entirely my fault: outside forces dictate that the fiction, memoir, and nonfiction synopsis must all be slightly different. Since novel and memoir synopses are typically closer than nonfiction synopses are to either, I tackled them first.

In the middle of this festival of summary I like to call Synopsispalooza, I’ve been concentrating for so far primarily upon the specialized problems of novel and memoir synopses. Specifically, I went on (and on and on) about the importance of a novel synopsis’ demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that its writer is a gifted storyteller.

For a memoir, this too is crucial: the most gripping real-life account is going to fall flat on the page if it’s not told well, right? So basically, a memoirist should use the same tactics as a novelist, except in the first person and the past tense: make the book sound like a terrific story.

Have I been gone so long that anybody out there does not remember how to pull that off in a 1-page synopsis? Just in case, let’s review its goals:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

All of these aims are easily transferable to a memoir, right? All you have to do is think of the memoir as story, rather than autobiography, and yourself as the protagonist, and summarize accordingly.

Does that seem a trifle vague? Okay, I’ll be more specific: A 1-page synopsis for a memoir should answer all of these burning questions — and some of these should sound awfully familiar:

Who am I? (other than the memoir’s author, that is)

What is my background? (Specifically, the part of it that renders it interesting enough to read about for 350 pages — and no, neither rampaging narcissism nor “But I spent all of this time writing it!” are adequate answers.)

How and why was/am I an interesting person in an interesting situation?

Who were the people in my life in the midst of all of this interestingness, and how do they move my story along?

What were my hopes and dreams — and what were the major barriers to my bringing them to fruition? Alternatively, what were my fears and how realistic were they?

What would I have gained by attaining these goals — and what would I have lost if I did not?

Here is how charming I am to follow on the page. Please fall in love with me as a protagonist, me as a writer, and ultimately, me as a client/new author signed to the publishing house/contest winner.

Piece of proverbial cake to pull off in a page, right? Now let’s add in the loftier additional goals of the slightly longer synopsis:

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Again, it’s not all that hard to envision synopsizing a memoir in this manner in 3 or 5 pages. Like a novel, a memoir — a good one, anyway — consists of fully-realized scenes, not just a litany I did this and I felt that. Treat Millicent the agency screener to snippets of those scenes, depicted as vividly as possible.

In other words: as for a novel synopsis, you should minimize the number of generalizations in your memoir synopsis. Instead, use as many concrete details as possible — and make sure to include some tidbits Millicent is highly unlikely to see in anybody else’s synopsis. Instead of concentrating upon cramming as much material as possible on the page, focus on making yourself sound original and fascinating.

My, I’m leaning upon the boldface button heavily this evening, amn’t I? It must be the weighty presence of Oz, the Great and Terrible.

Yet for nonfiction — and, if I’m going to be honest about it, some memoir as well — the task of constructing a synopsis is a trifle more complicated. Yes, you do need to come across as a great storyteller with a fascinating story to tell (and argument to make), but you also are charged with the sometimes heavy burden of convincing Millicent that your subject matter as interesting and important, as well as that you are the best possible writer in the universe to consult about it.

Naturally, that case is quite a bit easier to make if your subject matter is already widely recognized as interesting and important. Especially if you happen already to be celebrated internationally for your prowess in explaining it. In that case, you already have what people in publishing call a platform: a demonstrated ability to be able to get people to pay attention to you when you talk on this particular subject.

(Speaking of which, I’ve a favor to ask: over the years, quite a number of you have asked when I am planning to release this blog in book form, so you may have it sitting on your desk as you write. I am seriously considering pulling together a book proposal for a blog-based book this fall, and I could use some glowing blurbs of entreaty and/or testimonials from blog readers to dress up the proposal. If you’d like to help me out and earn my undying gratitude, drop me a line in the comments, and I shall contact you off-site. Thanks!)

If you are not already commanding public attention for your wit and wisdom on the subject matter of your nonfiction project, don’t worry — contrary to depressed murmurings on the writers’ conference circuit, a writer does not need to be already famous in order to have a platform for a particular book.

Yes, really. Trust me, I have a LOT of experience writing all three types of synopsis, as it happens: in recent years, I’ve sold both a memoir and a nonfiction book to publishers, and my second novel is making the rounds even as I type this. Not to mention all of the synopses I see as a frequent contest judge and even more frequent freelance editor. So yours truly has spent quite a bit of time in the last few years hunkered over the odd synopsis, let me tell you. I know whereat I speak.

In fact, just go ahead and imagine the following words of wisdom booming from the mouth of Oz, the Great and Terrible. It will save time and energy in the long run. (And if someone would be willing to say in a blurb that I’m more respected and feared than Oz in his heyday, there might be a candy bar in it for you. I just mention.)

In a nonfiction synopsis of any length, your goal is sixfold — and as those annoying disembodied voices on business’ voice mail systems so love to say, please listen carefully, as our options have changed in recent years:

(1) to present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter (even at an agency that specializes in your type of nonfiction, it’s unlikely that either Millicent or the agent will be very well-read in your particular area of expertise);

(2) to demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it (or, to put it another way: why should Millicent care about it?);

(3) to mention in passing who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject (the Sierra Club, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Harpo Marx Fan Club, the entire scientific community, etc.);

(4) to give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail (hey, you’re on your own on this one);

(5) to demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (not the same thing as official, organized interest, necessarily), and

(6) to show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book (not, alas, always self-evident to our Millie).

In answer to that immense gulp I just heard: yes, a nonfiction writer does need to pull that off in anywhere from 1-5 pages, depending upon what the agent, publishing house, or contest rules request. I’m not entirely sure that I proved half that much in my master’s thesis.

And let me tell you, it was a pretty good master’s thesis. Oz was impressed, I’m told.

Nonfiction writers tend to have been stellar students, so I’m not at all astonished to see a plethora of hands politely raised already. Good students are frequently full of questions. “But Anne,” many of you point out politely — and believe me, I appreciate it. “That list above reads strikingly like the goals of a book proposal, a lengthy, heavily-detailed document that, correct me it I’m wrong, entire multi-page sections devoted to each of the numbered issues above. If I’m expected to accomplish all of that heavy lifting in the synopsis, what on earth am I supposed to be accomplishing in the proposal?”

The same thing, actually, but at greater length and with more evidence. Next question?

Just kidding; no need to burst into tears at the prospect. Lean in closer, and I’ll let you in on a little well-kept professional secret: a good nonfiction synopsis is not just a summary of the book’s argument, but a super-short book proposal.

Think of it as proposal concentrate. Add a sample chapter, a competitive market analysis, and an annotated table of contents, stir, and hey, you’ve got a book proposal. Not as tasty as fresh-squeezed, perhaps, but Millicent doesn’t have time to watch you argue it from scratch at the query packet stage.

I can feel you tensing up, but seriously, there’s no need. If you can write a book proposal — and you can, if you know enough about your subject matter to write a book — you can construct a really good nonfiction synopsis.

Where to begin, you ask? Well, I used to tell everyone who would listen that the argument was the most important element of a nonfiction synopsis — if it doesn’t come across as coherent and well-reasoned, after all, the book project is sunk. However, watching how nonfiction books are being marketed and bought these days, I’ve changed my tune. (To Dum de dum dum TO ME, apparently.)

Now, Oz the Great and Terrible is telling you that the single most vital aspect of a successful nonfiction synopsis lies in framing the central question of the book in a way that makes it appear not only interesting to Millicent – who, let’s face it, is almost certainly not going to be a specialist in your subject area; she was (or is) an English major, probably at a highly respected New England college — but likely to catch the notoriously fickle eye of the media. Basically, the synopsis needs to present the book’s concept as easy to promote to an already-existing audience.

If you doubt that, take a quick run to your local megabookstore and take a gander at how many political memoirs are coming out this month. It’s not that their subject matter is necessarily more fascinating than other nonfiction topics, or even, in many cases, that the author has such a terrific platform for telling the behind-the-scenes story. (The classic response of White House officials to tell-all books has historically been, “Who? Oh, didn’t he work here once for a week? I don’t even remember what he looked like.”) No, it’s that even the most poorly-written of these books are likely to be discussed on television and radio shows already devoted to such topics.

Hey, the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t feed itself, you know.

Thus, at the risk of observing the obvious, a query packet synopsis that makes Millicent exclaim by the end of the first paragraph, “Oh, this one would be a cinch to promote!” is far, far more likely to generate a request to see the book proposal than one that prompts her to muse, “Hmm, this is beautifully written. Too bad only four people in Southwestern Montana will be interested.”

Up go the hands again. “Excuse me, Anne? I had gathered from your Querypalooza series — conveniently gathered for the benefit of those who missed it under the category of that name on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page — that I was supposed to use the platform paragraph of my query to make the case that a readership already exists for my book. Wouldn’t tackling that again here be redundant?”

Ah, but synopses often end up places that query letters do not. A 1-page nonfiction synopsis might, for instance, sit by the phone for easy reference while an agent pitches the proposal to an editor; a 5-page synopsis might get circulated to an editorial committee before the acquiring editor makes and offer. The better a micro-proposal it is, the better legwork it can do for its writer.

That being said, the synopsis’ presentation of how and why the central problem of the book is typically a bit different from the query’s. It’s longer, for one thing, and less likely to include an explicit statement of how many articles The New York Times has run on the subject within the last two years.

It’s also more likely to be in the form of a story — and before any of you writing books on particle physics start guffawing, hear me out.

Every problem can be framed in the form of a tale; if you doubt that, just crack open any 7th-grade math textbook and take a gander at the word problems. While a purely technical exposition may well seem dry to the non-specialist, vividly-told real-world example of what can and does go wrong if the central problem of the book is not solves can instantly answer the questions, “So why will anybody care about this?” A gripping anecdote can serve the same function for a historical account.

So why not open your synopsis with a gripping one- or two-paragraph anecdote that illustrates what’s at stake in solving the problem tackled by the book?

Don’t laugh — it works. Especially for any sort of biography or memoir, a brief foray into storytelling can demonstrate not only that the writer is a fine storyteller, but can provide an intriguing entree to a subject that might at first glance appear dull to the non-specialist. Which, for example, does a better job of explaining the importance of breakthrough in sewing machine technology, this:

In the old days, a surprising number of textile workers lost fingers or even hands in industrial sewing machine accidents. Tamlyn Baker pondered the problem for forty-five years, invented a new kind of threading machine, then died in obscurity.

Or this:

The thread broke: for the eighth time that month, a burlap sack-maker lost a finger. Like the others, this woman would be fired and go home to tell her children to prepare to starve. Tamlyn swore once again to perfect her hands-free threading device, even if she had to burn every candle in the Midwest staying up to do it.

Okay, so the latter is a trifle melodramatic — but if you were Millicent, which book proposal would you request?

The second most important element of a nonfiction synopsis is the argument: it’s imperative that the synopsis-reader be able to follow it. Show it in logical order, rather than jumping around or leaving pieces out. No need to be pedantic about it, of course: In Chapter Eight… is not a transition likely to impress Millicent with your storytelling acumen.

Why is showing the basic argument of the book so important? Well, in a nonfiction synopsis, you should not only show the content of the book, but also that you can argue coherently.

Yes, you in the tenth row? “But Anne, this seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t the best way for an agent or editor to check out my argumentative style be to, you know, read my manuscript? Or at least my proposal?”

I could shoot that one down right away, but first, let’s all take a refreshing mental holiday and picture how much easier all of our lives would be people in the publishing industry actually thought that way. Ah, that’s nice: a world where writers’ talent was judged solely by thoughtful, well-paid, prose-loving agents and editors, lounging on comfy sofas in sun-drenched lofts, languidly turning over page after page of entire manuscripts sent to them by aspiring authors because they have literally nothing else to do all day.

And look, outside that massive loft window — do I see a pig flying by, with Jean Harlow on his back, waving sparklers and smooching Clark Gable?

Okay, back to the real world: realistically, a nonfiction synopsis does indeed need to encapsulate the argument that it takes an entire book to make in just a couple of pages — or at least to establish the central question and indicate how you’re going to go about answering it.

Think of it as a tap-dancing audition, your two-minute chance to show your fancy footwork: if you argue well enough here, an agent (or editor at a small publishing house) will ask to see the argument in the book.

Did I just hear some gasps out there? “Two minutes?” a few of you squeak. “How closely can she possibly read my synopsis in that short amount of time? The one-page version perhaps, but the 5-page?”

I didn’t mean to startle you — but yes, that’s about the maximum your synopsis will have under an agent’s (or, more likely, Millicent’s) bloodshot, overworked eyes. Contrary to popular opinion, nonfiction queries and submissions tend not to be treated to much closer or more respectful readings than novels these days — and that’s saying something.

Popular opinion may have a point here, at least at the agency level, because nonfiction has historically been quite a bit easier to sell to the major publishing houses than fiction. At this point in publishing history, though, the market is so tight that it just doesn’t make strategic sense for nonfiction writers to assume that they — or, more accurately, we — don’t need to present book projects as professionally and eye-catchingly as novelists do.

So assume two minutes, maximum, possibly less. Let’s face it, this isn’t a lot of time to establish an argument much more complicated than the recipe for your sainted mother’s cream of tomato soup.

Even if Mom’s methodology consisted primarily of opening a can of Campbell’s, you may find yourself in a descriptive pickle.

It is more than enough page space, however, to demonstrate that you have the writing skills to make an argument where each sentence leads logically to the next. It’s also enough time to show that you have a coherent plan for proving your propositions, and for indicating what evidence you intend to use.

If I seem to be harping on the necessity of making a COMPLETE, if skeletal, argument here, it’s because the single most common mistake nonfiction synopsizers make is to give only PART of the argument, or still worse, only the premise, with no indication of how they intend to make their case. Instead, they use the space to go on a rant about how necessary the book is, essentially squandering precious argumentative space with marketing jargon and premise.

But a solid underlying argument is the sine qua non of the nonfiction synopsis. Period. If it doesn’t appear to hold water — yes, even in a 1-page synopsis — the book simply isn’t going to strike the industry as marketable.

To make it appear as solid in the synopsis as I’m sure it is in the proposal and/or manuscript, don’t forget to mention what kind of evidence you will be using to support your claims. Have you done extensive research? Exhaustive interviews? Hung out with the right people?

If you have a professional background in the subject matter of your book that unquestionably renders you an expert, or personal experience that gives you a unique insight into the subject, try to work that into the synopsis, early on. Otherwise, stick to the subject matter and explain what your book is going to teach people about it;

I use the term teach advisedly, because it is often quite helpful for synopsis writers to think of the task as producing a course overview for the lesson that is the book’s content: how will this book help readers, and what kind of readers will it help? Ultimately, how will both these readers and the world around them be better off because they read this book?

Oh, you don’t think your work is that important? If you don’t believe that your writing is capable of making the world a better place, why put in all of the effort to write it, break your heart querying, or bite your nails down to the elbow while you are waiting to hear yea or nay on your book proposal?

Once you have made the book’s worth clear, how about demonstrating precisely what about your approach will captivate those readers as no other will? Of course, I’m not talking about TELLING a potential agent or editor how terrific the book is — that’s the book proposal’s job, right? — but SHOWING that you can write the heck out of this topic.

Remember, it’s your job to make your subject matter sound absolutely fascinating. To achieve this successfully, a good nonfiction synopsis needs to show how the book’s take on the topic on it is original.

At the risk of repeating myself, in order to do that, you are going to have to spell out your argument. Not merely in generalities, but in sufficient detail that — everyone chant it with me now — an agent, editor, or contest judge could understand it sufficiently to describe it to someone else without having read the book.

Because, let’s face it, that’s precisely what Millicent the agency screener is going to have to do in order to get her boss to ask to see your book proposal or manuscript — and what her cousin Maury the editorial assistant will have to do to get his boss even to consider publishing it.

Have I convinced you yet that you really do need to present a cohesive, well-argued theory here? And did I happen to mention the importance of its being cohesive?

Easier said than done, of course. In the author’s mind, the argument often lies the details, not in the larger, more theoretical points. How can you narrow it down? It’s helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case.

Oh, don’t groan. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you are going to need to pull together a chapter-by-chapter overview anyway, to include in your book proposal: it’s called the annotated table of contents. This moniker is a tad misleading, because it brings to mind the simple chapter title + page number tables of contents we’ve all seen in published books. An annotated table of contents consists of the titles in order, yes, but it also contains a paragraph or two about the argument or material to be presented in that chapter.

For tips on how to pull this off successfully, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the list at right. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Don’t get so caught up in reproducing the argument in the synopsis, though, that you overlook working in a brief explanation of why the world needs your book, and why you are the best person imaginable to write it. This is typically the greatest difference between a fiction and a nonfiction synopsis: while a platform always helps for a novelist, it’s often not practicable for a science fiction writer to say, “I’m an expert on life on the planet Targ, having lived there for forty-seven Targian years (two months our time),” is it?

If you are writing on a subject that has already been well-trodden by past authors, it’s even more vital to make these points clear. The synopsis needs to render it apparent to Millicent and Maury at a glance why your book is different and better than what’s already on the market.

In answer to the small, instinctive moans of protest that just escaped from your gullet: yes, this is repetitive with material you will cover in your book proposal. As I mentioned above, in most of the contexts in which your synopsis will travel — tucked into an envelope with a query letter; accompanying a sample chapter or contest entry; floating around a publishing house after an editor has already fallen in love with your proposal — the reader will not also be clutching your proposal.

In other words: don’t count on its being available to make your case. Your goal should be to produce a synopsis that shows off your writing skills, the strength of your argument, and the inherent marketability of your book in a fraction of the space allotted to a proposal.

As always, there is no need to be heavy-handed in your own praise to achieve this, either. To prove it to you, I’m going to give you a sample opening, modest enough that it would strike no one as overbearing. Read carefully, as there will be a pop quiz afterward to see if you can spot the ways that this paragraph achieves Goals #3 and #4:

Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for the US’s 1.3 million snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist. Seen through the eyes of a professional rock hound with thirty years of experience in the field, the reader is introduced to mountains as more than an array of cold, hard rocks: mountains emerge as a historical document, teeming with life and redolent of all of the stages of human history.

How did you do? Give yourself points if you noticed that the opening question was an excellent hook: it grabbed the reader, showing immediately how this book might relate to the reader’s practical life; a rhetorical question for which the book itself provides an answer is a great way to establish a book’s appeal at the very beginning of the synopsis.

Also, pat yourself on the back fifty times if you zeroed in on the subtle way in which this paragraph dissed the competition — the implication here is that the authors all previous books on the subject were such boneheads that THEY thought mountains were just collections of rocks.

No one is naming names here, but those authors know who they are. Shame on you.

Take yourself out for a cupcake if you noted the clever (if I do say so myself) use of demographic information. (Which I made up wholesale for example’s sake, so for heaven’s sake, don’t quote it elsewhere.) If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them — here, and in your query letter, and in your pitch. As in:

Currently, two million Americans have been diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them — and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in by fear.

Why is it so important to hammer home the statistics in every conceivable piece of marketing material for your book? Well, no matter how large the prospective audience for your book is (unless it is an already such a well-covered market that anyone in the industry could reasonably be expected know about it, such as golf fans), you can’t ever, ever assume that an agent or editor will be aware of its size.

ALWAYS assume that they will underestimate it — and thus the market appeal of your book. Oz, the Great and Terrible, tells you that more often than not, they will.

While Oz’ booming tones are echoing around in your brainpan, I think I shall end for the day, so all of your nonfiction writers out there may go off and meditate upon your target demographic and why it desperately needs your book. Join me tomorrow for another Synopsispalooza post, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XVIII: wrapping up the proposal neatly and tying it with a big red bow (not literally, of course; as you may see, it would not only look a tad silly, but would be difficult to mail without crushing the bow)

gift-wrapped proposal

As that rather cumbersome title implies, I’m going to be finishing up my whirlwind overview of book proposal formatting today. This exciting development (hey, everything’s relative) is, of course, merely a plateau in our continuing climb toward mastery of standard format for book manuscripts. Over the days to come, I shall be wrapping that up, too, via my favorite means: answering readers’ burning questions.

So if you’ve been holding back any, waiting for someone else to ask, now would be a dandy time to leap into the fray. The comments on today’s post would be a dandy place to bring up any lingering concerns.

While I’m trolling for commentary, would anybody be interested in my following this series with a short overview of what a query letter and synopsis should look like? Please weigh in, if so — or if not, for that matter. Personally, I kind of like the idea of having all of the formatting posts back-to-back in the archives, but as I’ve dealt with query letters fairly recently, I fear to bore the masses.

Which is a rather interesting statement for someone who’s just spent weeks on end meticulously detailing small formatting distinctions to make, come to think of it. Apparently, my faith in my own writing’s inherent fascination is boundless.

As is today’s intended subject matter, as it happens. I’m determined to polish off the proposal today, so this is bound to be a long one, folks.

Before we launch into this last installment, let’s recap, shall we? (Yes, yes, I know, I’ve covered all this before, but you’d be surprised at how many writers in a hurry will read only the most recent post in a series like this.) Here, once again, are the constituent parts of the book proposal, in the order they should appear:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves Maury with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being with an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

3. The competitive market analysis

4. The annotated table of contents

Everyone relatively happy about all of those? Again, please pop a question into the comments, if not. Moving on:

5. The sample chapter(s)
Generally speaking, professional proposals use Chapter 1 as the sample, rather than one from farther into the storyline or argument, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s usually easier for the reader to follow that way. However, that’s not strictly necessary: in a cookbook proposal, for instance, Chapter 7′s Thanksgiving feast may well wow Millicent more than Chapter 1′s general introduction to baking techniques.

Use your best judgment — but as always, be open to your future agent’s informing you that you judged wrong and that you must write another sample chapter before she submits it to editors at publishing houses. (Yes, it happens. Quite a lot, in fact.)

When making the decision about which chapter to include here, bear in mind that this section is where you’re going to provide the most direct evidence of the voice and writing style of the proposed book. Neither of which, in a good proposal, will come as a surprise to Millicent, because the entire proposal should be written in the voice of the book.

Yes, even the dry marketing parts. Hey, you’re a writer — it’s your job to make even unquestionably dull stuff interesting to read.

A whole lot more work than simply throwing the necessary materials together and hoping that the sample chapter alone is enough to convince Millicent that your voice is right for this project? Undoubtedly. But a better marketing strategy than the far more common approach of composing the rest of the proposal in the faintly exasperated tone of the jumper through unnecessary hoops? Absolutely.

On the brighter side, for a well-prepared writer, the labor involved in incorporating the sample chapter into the proposal is comparatively light. Hold your applause, but in a proposal, the sample chapter is formatted precisely like a chapter in a manuscript.

Okay, you can clap now. You know you want to.

That’s right — provided that as much of the book as you’ve written so far is already in standard format, you can simply copy and paste it into your book proposal at the proper juncture. This means, of course, that the first page of the sample chapter will have more white space at the top than any other page of the proposal. (And if you found that last statement mystifying, may I suggest that you review my earlier post on chapter openings and how they should look on the page?)

I hear some of you muttering and shuffling your feet. You want to see the difference between the first page of the sample chapter and any old page of the proposal, don’t you? Good plan.

Here, for your comparing and contrasting pleasure, is a properly-formatted first page of a proposal. (You do remember, right, that the title page is neither numbered nor included in the page count?)

overview1

That looks familiar by now, right? Because the sample chapter is a major section of the proposal, let’s review how a major section change would be designated in a proposal:

competitive market analysis3

Now take a peek at a minor topic change — which, again, should be old hat by now. (Where on earth did that perverse little expression originate, I wonder?)

subheading in proposal

As I would devoutly hope would be abundantly clear to you by this late point in a series on standard formatting, none of the above remotely resembles the first page of a manuscript. The first page of a manuscript should, of course, look like this:

first page of text

Quite a difference, is it not? Millicent could tell which was a page from a proposal and which had fluttered free of a manuscript from ten paces away.

Now take a gander at the first page of the sample chapter in a proposal:

sample chapter opening

Those last two are remarkably similar, aren’t they? Pop quiz: see any formatting differences between this and the same chapter opening in the manuscript?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, exclaiming, “By Jove, Anne, the slug line clearly demonstrates that rather than starting pagination over again at page 1, the sample chapter’s first page shows where it falls within the book proposal,” congratulations: you have the eye of an editor. As you so astutely pointed out, the page numbers don’t start over at the beginning of the sample chapter; the entire proposal is numbered consecutively. For extra credit, would anyone care to guess why?

If you shouted, “To make it easier for Millicent to put the always unbound pages of the proposal back in order after she collides with someone in the hallway!” you’re really on a roll today. Help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash.

Otherwise, though, the sample chapter and the same chapter in manuscript form should be formatted identically. Realizing that, need I even add that part of what the writer is demonstrating in this section of the proposal is a familiarity with the standards of this industry?

Not to mention the tone and vocabulary norms of your chosen book category. I probably should mention it, though, because many a well-argued and even well-written book proposal has gotten rejected because the prose in the sample chapter just didn’t sound like, well, a book in that category.

As always, if you’re not familiar with what’s currently being published in your chosen book category, why not? And how on earth did you manage to write a convincing competitive market analysis without being up on all the recent releases, anyway?

I’m most emphatically not kidding about this: from an agent or editor’s point of view, a book proposer’s being conversant with the norms, trends, and current market for the type of book she’s proposing is not an optional extra — it’s a basic requirement. It comes standard with the professional nonfiction writer package.

Don’t tell me you can’t afford to buy everything that comes out in your category, either; that’s what libraries and bookstores with comfortable reading chairs are for.

One final word about the sample chapter before I move on to the remaining bits of the proposal: make absolutely sure that the sample chapter delivers on the promise of that chapter’s summary in the annotated table of contents. If there’s any doubt whatsoever in your mind about whether it fulfills that promise — or if it does not represent your best writing — either pick another chapter to use as your sample or start revising.

Cursory sample chapters are the bane of any proposal-reading Millicent or Maury’s existence, and for good reason: if their attention has been sufficiently grabbed by the overview and maintained throughout the middle part of the proposal, it’s a genuine disappointment to discover a sample chapter that just lies there. If they’ve read that far, trust me, they want — and expect — to be wowed.

They also expect that the sample chapter will demonstrate how you intend to flesh out the brief chapter summaries in the annotated table of contents, and rightly so. If the two parts of the proposal appear to be out of sync, M & M are going to wonder if your writing skills are up to the task of producing a consistent final manuscript.

Don’t tempt them to speculate on that score. Call me cynical, but I’ve seldom seen that type of speculation end well for the proposer. It’s not a screener’s job to give proposers the benefit of the doubt, after all.

Speaking of doing one’s job, it’s about time that I talked about the remaining elements of the proposal, isn’t it? Don’t worry; there aren’t many.

6. The author bio
Since writing a stellar author bio is an art form of its own, I’m not even going to attempt to describe here how to write one. For an in-depth discussion of the subject, please consult the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the archive list at right.

Seriously, go consult it. Again, this is a place where many first-time proposers skimp, thinking (erroneously, alas) that since they’ve already talked about their platforms earlier in the proposal, all that’s really necessary in the author bio is the kind of bare-bones, just-the-facts-ma’am author bios they’re accustomed to seeing inside the dust jackets of hardcover books. Do not, I implore you, be fooled by those brief paragraphs going by the same moniker as what’s required in a book proposal.

The purpose of an author bio in a book proposal is to provide a handy single-page summary of the writer’s platform for writing this particular book. That means, in practice, that a savvy writer may choose to use different author bio text — or even author photos — in proposals for different books.

Not sure why? Okay, tell me: if you were vacillating between acquiring two books on dog breeding, which bio would appeal to you more, one that simply lists the writer’s previous publications and credentials under a smiling head shot — or one that listed eight dog-related credentials under a snapshot of the writer with his arm around a happy Dalmatian?

No contest, is there?

Do not, for the sake of your own happiness, leave constructing your bio to the end of the proposal-writing process. It’s hard; budget time for it. Why? Well, really apt author bios are hard to write — and most of us go through quite a few photos before we find one of ourselves that we like.

Don’t believe me? Okay, care to guess how many shots my quite gifted photographer friend Marjon Floris took before she caught the one in my bio?

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 800. With two cameras. (Thank goodness for digital technology, eh?) Admittedly, my whole family is pretty camera-shy — my brother’s wedding photographer actually burst into tears during the reception, so frustrated was he at the difficulty of catching candids of any of us wily Minis — but still, a good author photo often takes a lot of trial and error.

Speaking of the camera-shy, am I seeing some of you waggling your fingertips in my peripheral vision? “But Anne,” the photography-averse murmur, making faces at the camera, “I don’t want to include a picture of myself in my bio; believe me, my book’s appeal would in no way be enhanced by a photo of me clutching a Dalmatian, or indeed, any creature whatsoever, warm- or cold-blooded. Can’t I, you know, skip it?”

You’re not going to believe this, but the answer is yes.

At least in a book proposal; it’s more or less de rigueur these days in a bio accompanying a manuscript submission. (Hey, both Millicent and Maury will want to be able to tell their bosses if the new writer they’ve just discovered is photogenic — like it or not, it does sometimes make a difference in marketing these days.)

Without an author photo, a proposal bio is simply another double-spaced single page of text with a title at the top. Here, for instance, is the super-serious bio I used a few years ago in the proposal for the political book I’ve been using as an example all day:

author bio

7. Relevant clippings, if any
This is another platform-proving exercise: if you have written articles, or even other books, it’s customary to include beautifully sharp photocopies of a few of them at the end of your book proposal. Similarly, if you happen to be famous enough for articles to have been written about you and your subject matter, feel free to include ‘em here — provided, in this second case, that they relate to your platform for this particular book.

Since our primary concern in this series is formatting (although I suspect that salient fact may have slipped all of our minds while I’ve been chatting at length about the content of a good book proposal; hey, I’m chatty), I’m going to leave to another time in-depth discussion of how to generate clippings. For now, I’ll content myself with urging you to make sure that the copies are pristine, with nice, clear, readable type.

Oh, and one other thing: do yourself a favor and scan each of the clippings, or have a computer-savvy someone do it for you. Not only will this enable you to submit your proposal to agents and small publishers who prefer online submissions (still relatively rare for nonfiction, but growing in popularity by the day), but it will also save you quite a bit of time down the line, once you’re working with an agent.

Why? Well, it has become quite common for agents to submit book proposals electronically to editors. Unscanned clippings can’t go into a virtual proposal, right?

Pant, pant, pant. Don’t stop running now — we’re practically at the end.

8. The proposal folder
I’ve written about this fairly extensively in the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL series (conveniently gathered under the category of the same name on the archive list at right), so I’m not going to delve too deeply into the particulars. Except to say: in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders.

Period. Don’t even consider trying to get fancy — and whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript.

Well, not quite the same: tuck the pages (neatly please) into the folder, items 1-4 on the left-hand side (i.e., everything prior to the sample chapter), items 5-7 (the sample chapter and beyond on the right).

Don’t label the folder on the front, either; keep it plain. What Millicent, Maury, and everybody else in the industry expects to see coming out of a submission envelope is this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. Seriously, proposals in the wrong kind of folder will just look unprofessional to the pros.

And that — whew! — is a lightning-swift (for me) discussion of how to format a book proposal. Congratulations on absorbing so much practical information so rapidly, campers, and keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XVII: excuse me — you’re proposing WHAT?

marriage-proposal1

For the last couple of posts, we have bent our collective gaze — steely, to be sure — away from the green pastures of manuscript formatting to turn our attention to the wind-swept plains of book proposals and their proper formatting. As we have seen in our brief sojourn amid the majestic buffalo and skipping lambs, while the text of a book proposal is formatted largely in the same matter as a manuscript’s, the various headings and subheadings are often different.

Before I move on, allow me to digress: did you notice how I dropped that running metaphor when it became apparent that it wasn’t working? That’s a good editing tip for any kind of writing: don’t force it if it doesn’t fly. An even better one: while proofing you work, make sure you read all the way to the end of every sentence; it’s the only way to catch metaphors abandoned mid-stream. (And yes, Virginia, I do see orphaned metaphors wandering about ostensibly well-revised manuscripts. All the time.)

As we saw last time, a professional book proposal contains a wide range of marketing materials, all written in the proposer’s best possible prose, cleverly fitted together in a manner to convince an agent or editor that not only is the proposed book an interesting idea that will appeal to a very specific (and, ideally, well-established) target audience, but that the proposer is the best (and, ideally, the only) conceivable person currently drawing breath to write this particular book. Or, to put it in the language of the industry, it’s a marketable concept presented by a writer with a great platform.

A thousand hands just shot into the air mid-paragraph, didn’t they? “Um, Anne?” many would-be proposers inquire nervously. “You didn’t really mean that bit about the proposal written in the proposer’s best possible prose, did you? After all, the proposal is just a formality, a series of hoops through which I have to jump before a publisher buys my book, right?”

Actually, no — although I can certainly see why you might think so. Unlike novels, nonfiction books (yes, even most memoirs) are sold not because someone falls in love with the manuscript, but because a prospective author has made a convincing case in a proposal that a book that does not yet exist will be marketable to a specific audience and that s/he is the right person to write it. Since the book concept and the argument for it are the primary sales pitch, most first-time proposers conclude that the writing in a proposal is of secondary importance.

They’re absolutely wrong. Every syllable of a book proposal is a writing sample — the only writing sample, in fact, upon which an agent or editor will base his or her conclusions about whether to pick up the book.

If you’ll join me in a wee flight of fancy, I think you’ll see why that absolutely must be the case.

Picture, if you will (and you will, right?), Maury the editorial assistant, diligently scanning the day’s submissions from agents for the next promising nonfiction project. He has reason to be careful: he needs to be very, very selective about what he passes on to his boss, the editor of your dreams. (Let’s call her Ermintrude, just for giggles.) If he simply sends Ermintrude every proposal that sounds as if it might make a good book, he’s not really doing his job, is he? It’s not as though she can offer a publication contract to every interesting-sounding project, after all; at most, even an extremely busy editor might be able to take on somewhere between one and ten a year.

Yes, you read that correctly.

It’s Maury’s job to prevent Ermintrude’s desk from becoming so over-stacked with proposals that she can’t find her phone. So yes, he’s going to weed out any proposal that doesn’t sound interesting right off the bat. He’s also going to reject those that don’t have a clearly-defined concept — which, in a screener’s world, means one that’s both grabbed his attention instantly and is comprehensible within the first few pages of the proposal — as well as those that either don’t define their target market well or do not strike him as likely to appeal to the readers already buying such books. Not to mention those that don’t seem to have a well laid-out marketing plan or chapters likely to deliver fully upon the premise of the proposal, or those proposed by writers who haven’t made a good case for their platforms to write the book.

That’s going to weed out most of ‘em. (I hate to be blunt about it, but because the book proposal is such a widely misunderstood marketing tool, Maury sees a whole lot of rambling proposals. And rambling, unprofessional proposals are most of what Millicent, his cousin who screens agency submissions, sees on a weekly basis.) But let’s be generous and assume that Maury’s had an unusually strong selection of proposals submitted this week: out of 300, 10 are fascinating ideas for books aimed for a well-established audience.

He can’t possibly send them all — ten is Ermintrude’s entire year’s allotment of books, even if she works nights, weekends, and funds the last two herself. So how does he decide which one or two to send upstairs to his boss?

Uh-huh. The ones where the writing screams, “Excuse me, but had you noticed that there’s some talent here?”

Think about that, any of you who were planning to toss together your book proposals over the next long weekend, or stuff them into the mailbox without running the text by another literate human being not already familiar with your book’s concept. (Word to the wise: if that literate human can’t tell you what the book is about and why you’re the best person on earth to write it by the time she is halfway through page 4, you might want to think about some serious revision. And if she doesn’t want to read the book by the middle of page 2, run, don’t walk, back to the drawing board to work on your prose and presentation.)

Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, let’s review the constituent parts of the book proposal — at least, the ones we have covered so far:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves Maury with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being with an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

Okay, okay, so I kind of slipped that last one up the back staircase, but it’s a great asset to a book proposal if it is written in the same voice (and with the same vocabulary) as the eventual book.

Those aren’t the kind of things you want to leave to Maury’s imagination, are they? As we discussed last time, a fantastic way to establish authorial voice and interest in the subject matter is to open with a vividly illustrative anecdote or other method of direct appeal to the reader’s reason and emotions. Opening with dry marketing material tends not to grab Maury’s attention anywhere near as well.

3. The competitive market analysis
This section, as I hope you will recall from last time, is a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

Sound familiar? It should here is where the proposer proves the contentions he made in the overview with hard data.

Which of the many, many contentions, you ask, and how does talking about your competition prove them? Well, for starters, who the target audience is for your book? Answer: the readers who have already bought the books listed in the competitive market analysis. (The implicit logic: if those books sold well, that means these people buy a lot of books — and might be eager to buy more.)

Yet another reason that you might want to say something nice about your competition, eh?

You can also use this section to demonstrate how your book is different and better than what’s already on the market — and yes, that can (and should) be done without running down the competition, as long as you’re specific. Think about it: if you mention the best points of the other books and can still make the case that your proposed volume will either do what they do, only more effectively (do you have a stronger platform than another author, for instance, or is the other book outdated now?) and/or not in the same way (what does your take on the subject offer that those other books do not?), your book is going to end up looking better by contrast than if you merely say that everything else is terrible.

Trust me on this one. If you can’t say something nice about a particular comparable book, consider contrasting yours to one that you can praise with a straight face.

Some of you have had your hands raised since yesterday, have you not? “But Anne,” proposers everywhere exclaim, rubbing circulation back into their exhausted arms, “one of the reasons I wanted to write my book in the first place is that there isn’t another recent book on the subject. So how do I come up with a list for the competitive market analysis? Make things up?”

Glad you asked, patient arm-raisers — there’s a pro’s trick to this. But first, indulge me in a short exercise in understanding your book’s appeal.

First, equip yourself with some scratch paper (the back sides of earlier drafts of your proposal, perhaps?) and a comfortable pen. I would suggest selecting a comfortable chair, too, because you’re not to budge until you come up with five different ways to describe your proposed book. And I’m not talking about descriptors like well-written, either — describe your book the way a clerk in a bookstore might to a potential reader.

Got that list firmly in hand? Good. Now hie yourself and your list hence to the nearest well-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore. (Seriously, what I’m about to suggest is considerably harder to pull off online.)

Standing in the store, feeling silly for carrying that list around. Excellent. Ready, set — don’t find a book like yours.

Yes, really. Instead, go to the first descriptor on your list and find several books that could be described the same way. Proposing a memoir, for instance? Stand in front of the memoir section and keep pulling books off the shelves until you discover a few that are similar in some way to yours.

It can be a very, very small way. Is it a childhood memoir by someone who grew up in the same part of the country as you did? Start taking notes. Is another by a dog-lover, while two chapters of your proposed book cover your relationship with beloved Fido? Sounds close enough to me.

After you’ve ferreted out a few useful titles, move on to the next descriptor on your list. If your memoir set in the mid-1960s, find a few good nonfiction titles that cover similar aspects of the period. If your cookbook is for vegans, how about including as few of the well put-together vegetarian cookbooks out recently? Not too hard to see how your book would be different and better for vegan readers than those, right?

And so forth. The goal here is not necessarily to find a dozen books exactly like yours; it’s also perfectly permissible to devote a paragraph or two each to several different book categories into which your unique book might conceivably fall. By demonstrating that there is already a market for books that match your five descriptors — as there must be, according to industry logic, or those recently-released books would not be on the shelves* — the implication is that past readers of each of those types of book will be interested in yours.

(* Don’t waste your energies questioning this quite questionable assumption; you’ve got a proposal to write.)

Everyone clear now on the purpose and proper formatting of the competitive market analysis? If not, now would be a fabulous time to shout out a question or two. While I’m waiting with my hand cupped around my ear, let’s move on to the next section.

4. The annotated table of contents
This section has some odd conventions, ones that tend to come as a surprise to most first-time proposers, so before I launch into a discussion, let’s take a gander at out example from the other day.

Notice anything here that might offend the muses of standard format? How about the fact that the title of the book appears at the top of the page, as if Annotated Table of Contents were a subtitle? Or the phenomenon of adding a section break between each chapter’s description? Or that the descriptions were in the present tense, like a synopsis?

Actually, there’s a pretty good explanation for the first two of these conventions. (Sorry; you’re on your own for the last.) Remember how I mentioned earlier in this sub-series that unlike a manuscript, book proposals are often broken up into their constituent parts on the reading end, so folks working in different departments at publishing houses may take a gander at ‘em? Titling the annotated table of contents renders it easier to get those pages back into the right proposal. And skipping a line between chapters makes it simpler for an editor to find the chapter she is seeking when she’s in an editorial committee meeting or arguing with your agent about what will be in the final book.

Oh, you weren’t aware that editors often ask writers to change the proposed chapters? Happens all the time, so gird your loins and prepare to play ball.

If the very notion of being asked to remove your meticulously-researched chapter on steam engines (in order to replace it with a similar section on cotton gins, about which the acquiring editor did her undergraduate thesis at Columbia) or to reduce your seven intended chapters on your life prior to the age of 17 into as many paragraphs (so you may concentrate at greater length on your four subsequent years as a sword-swallower) causes your skin crawl in revulsion, do not despair. You actually do have a means of making sure your favorite chapters pass the editorial test: write about them brilliantly in the annotated table of contents.

Seriously, if ever there was a time to show, not tell, this is it.

Why, you ask? Because the vast majority of first proposals just summarize what’s going to be in each chapter, instead of using each chapter to tell a compelling separate story. Because you’re selling your talents as a storyteller here, as well as the subject matter of the book, right?

It’s not surprising that this section falls flat in so many proposals; again, many, if not most, proposers don’t seem to understand the purpose of the annotated table of contents. As we discussed the other day, many, many proposers labor under the misconception that what agents and editors expect to see in this section is simply a list of chapter titles, accompanied by guesstimated page numbers. Many, many other proposers assume that they should devote a page to each chapter.

Or even several. For my sins, I’ve seen proposal drafts with 20-page annotated tables of contents. Believe me, Maury was far from pleased.

Avoid that dreadful fate in yours; keep it brief, but substantial. One to two paragraphs on each envisioned chapter is about right — remembering, of course, that everything in a book proposal is a writing sample. At the risk of repeating myself, show, not tell.

How does one pull that off when covering so much territory in so short a space as a paragraph or two? The same way you came up with the summary paragraph of your query letter, ideally: instead of trying to summarize everything that happens in a chapter in general terms, pick a particularly interesting scene or argument and present it in vivid terms.

In other words: be specific, not general. If you can possibly manage it, try to include details that Maury is unlikely to see in another proposal.

If you just muttered to yourself, “Hey, might this not be an amazingly good place to demonstrate just how my book is different and better than the ones I was discussing in the last section?” congratulations — you’re thinking like a pro. Especially in a memoir or cookbook proposal, this is the precise spot to work in mention of how your book is uniquely yours:

annotated table of contents2

And if you eagerly shot your hand into the air as you glanced over that last example, eager to point out that this example was formatted slightly differently than the one before it, congratulations again — your eye is sharpening. The last version is in the version my agency prefers; the desire for bolding and all caps is not universal.

Just thought you might like to see both. And if I haven’t said it often enough yet: if the agent of your dreams wants you to format your proposal differently from what I advise here — in, for example, clearly laid-out guidelines on the agency’s website — for heaven’s sake, give him what he wants. In the book proposal as well as the manuscript, the average agent is looking for evidence that a potential client can follow directions.

Don’t see why that would be an essential quality in a book-proposing client? Okay, let me ask you: if you were an agent, would you rather represent the writer who says, “Lose my Chapter 13 and dumb down the book’s vocabulary to an 8th-grade reading level? Can do, Editor!” or the one who flies into an uncontrollable fury?

Oh, come on — you didn’t really hesitate over that choice as long as you pretended, did you?

I’ll be wrapping up book proposal formatting next time — literally: I’ll be talking about the folders that encase them. Until we meet again in that happy, not-too-distant future, keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XI: page 137 deserves your loving scrutiny, too, or, no time for napping yet, gargoyle!

napping gargoyle in Carcassonne

Have you been enjoying our in-depth guided tour of the manuscript from the top down? Literally: so far, we’ve talked about the piece of paper on top of the submission stack, the title page; we’ve talked about the next sheet of paper, the first page of text and how it differs from both the title page and the pages that come after it; we’ve extrapolated from that first page to standards for the first page of each chapter and any titled section breaks.

Now, it’s time to talk about all of those pages in the middle, don’t you think? Perhaps, while we’re at it, we could engage in some more of those nifty compare-and-contrast exercises we engaged in so fruitfully yesterday.

I know, I know: hard to contain your enthusiasm, isn’t it?

Okay, so it’s not a particularly sexy topic, but as I mentioned yesterday, it’s a really, really good idea for an aspiring writer to devote a spot of time in comparing properly and improperly formatted manuscripts. Yes, yes, writing time is precious for all of us — and scarce for most of us — and school compare-and-contrast exercises left most graduates with but think of it as an investment in your writing career: once you’re learned to spot formatting problems easily, you’ll be a much, much more effective proofreader. Not to mention being able to format your manuscripts correctly from the get-go.

Oh, that doesn’t sound like much of a door prize to you? Just wait until you’re trying madly to pull a submission packet together in response to a request for materials, or frantically constructing a contest entry four hours before it needs to be postmarked. Or, even more stressfully marvelous, responding to a last-minute revision request from your editor. Believe me, you’ll be very grateful then for every nanosecond that you don’t have to devote to wondering if your margins are consistent.

With an eye to building up those vital professional skills, I have been running through the strictures of standard manuscript format and some common deviations from it, to demonstrate just how clearly our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, discerns the differences between a professionally-formatted manuscript and, well, everything else. At the end of a long day’s reading, they definitely jump out at her, and with good reason: once a professional reader gets used to seeing the similarities that pretty much all professional manuscripts share, submissions formatted in other ways might as well have UNPROFESSIONAL stamped on them in bright red ink.

And while Millicent may strive valiantly not to allow that impression to color her reading of the submission itself, it’s just not a good idea to assume that it won’t. She’s only human, after all.

It’s an even worse idea to assume a charitable reading for a contest entry, by the way. If anything, contest judges tend to be even more sensitive to the beauty of standard format than Millicent, for the simple reason that they’ve usually been reading a whole lot longer. The agency gig may well be Millie’s first job out of college, but the judge handed your entry may well have just retired from a long and fruitful career teaching English composition.

Her fingers positively ache for the red pen of correction.

This is not entirely accidental — most well-respected contests require some professional credentials from their judges, either as writers, editors, or teachers. Which means, in practice, that judges have often been writing in standard format themselves for years or bludgeoning other writers into compliance with its requirements.

Translation: other kinds of formatting won’t look right to them, either. By now, you’re having a similar reaction, aren’t you?

Don’t think you’re developing professional eyes? Or don’t want to believe you could conceivably share any traits with Millicent? Let’s test the proposition by trying a little Aphra Behn on for size.

If you don’t know her work, you should, at least historically: as far as we know, she was the first woman paid for writing in English — which, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, means that every female writer who earns so much as a sou from it now should be laying wreaths on her grave in gratitude.

Our girl Aphra’s also hilarious — and if you think it’s easy for a joke written in 1688 to remain funny today, well, I look forward to reading your comedic stylings in the year 2332.

Don’t believe me? Here is a page from THE FAIR JILT. (If you’re having trouble reading the small writing, try double-clicking on the image, then enlarging the resulting window.) Try not to be too distracted by the story to notice how the page is put together.

You clever souls could tell instantly that there was something wrong here, couldn’t you, and not just because Miranda’s trying to seduce her priest? (For convent, read monastery.) Set aside Aphra’s practically Dickensian affection for semicolons for the moment — which would tend to turn off a modern Millicent pretty quickly — why might this page have a hard time as a submission.

Before you commit to a final answer, here’s what it should have looked like in standard format:

Let’s take the problems in the first version from the top of the page: the incorrect version does not have a proper slug line. Seeing this lone page out of context, it’s quite obvious why a slug line is a dandy idea, isn’t it? Without it, how would it be even remotely possible to return this wandering page back into the manuscript from whence it came.

“Who wrote this?” Millicent cries in ire, glaring around her cubicle at the 47 manuscripts lying there. “This stray piece of paper could be from any of these!”

At least Ms. Behn thought to number the pages of Example #1 — but did you catch the problem with how she did it? The page number is in the bottom right-hand margin, rather than in the slug line, where it belongs.

Okay, that’s enough review from my last post. Did you catch any other problems that might register on Millicent’s umbrage meter??

What about the 10-point type, which will strain Millicent’s already overworked eyes? Or the Ariel typeface? There is nothing inherently wrong with either, but when she’s used to see practically every manuscript that heads out of the agency to publishing houses in 12-point Times New Roman, (chant it with me here) it just doesn’t look right.

Anything else? What about that right margin? Mighty straight, isn’t it? That look proper to you?

What’s going on here is called block-justification, another problem that can be laid squarely at the feet of those who insist that a manuscript and a published book should be identical. The text in many published books, and certainly in many magazines and newspapers, is spaced so that each line begins at exactly the same distance from the left-hand edge of the page and ends (unless it’s the last line of a paragraph) at exactly the same distance from the right-hand edge of the page.

Which, to let you in on why this type of neatness bugs the heck out of professional readers, renders skimming quite a bit more difficult.

Why? Well, as you may see for yourself, block formatting provides fewer landmarks, as it were; to the glancing eye, practically every line of narrative text resembles every other. To those of us used to the ragged right margins and even letter spacing of standard format, it’s actually kind of hard to read.

So there’s quite a bit in Example #1 that’s distracting from the actual writing, isn’t there? Doesn’t help sell the text, does it?

Okay, all of these rhetorical questions in a row are beginning to make me dizzy, so I’m going to wind down for the day. But before I do, let’s take one more look at Example #2, the one Millicent and a contest judge would like:

Now, let’s take a gander at the same page in — ugh — business format; if you don’t know why it’s ugh-worthy, you might want to revisit this series’ earlier post on the immense value of indentation.

Startlingly different, isn’t it, considering that I made a grand total of two formatting changes?

You did catch both of them on your skim through, right? All I did was I eliminate the indentations at the beginning of each paragraph and skipped a line between paragraphs to produce the norm for business correspondence, as well as for most of the text currently posted on the Internet.

Including this blog, unfortunately. As a professional writer and reader of manuscripts, it drives me nuts that my blogging program won’t allow me to indent paragraphs.

Why? Because — wait for it — it just doesn’t look right. So much so that in a contest entry, as in a submission, business format is often grounds all by itself for knocking a manuscript out of finalist consideration.

Finding yourself asking why again? Well, technically, indented paragraphs are grammatically requisite, so to a judge, non-indented paragraphs may well seem as great a violation of everything we hold dear as frequent misspellings or use of the wrong form of there, their, and they’re.

Fortunately for judges and Millicents who care deeply about the health of the language, errors seldom come singly in entries and submissions. Like spelling errors, formatting mistakes are apparently social: they like to travel in packs, roving all over a manuscript like Visigoths sacking Rome.

As a result of this convenient phenomenon, a manuscript that contains errors within the first few lines (or on the first page) is easy for a professional reader to dismiss; statistically speaking, it’s a pretty good bet that if Millicent kept reading after a technically flawed opening, she would find more causes for umbrage.

Given how many submissions she has to screen between now and lunch, do you think she is going to (a) press on in the hope that the first error was a fluke, or (b) leap to the (perhaps unwarranted) assumption that there is more of the same to come and reject it right away?

I leave that one to your fine critical faculties to answer. Let’s just say that her umbrage-taking threshold tends to be on the low side.

Why am I bringing this up in the middle of a discussion of the perils of business format, you ask? Well, for starters, an ever-increasing number of agents are not only accepting e-mailed queries (a genuine rarity until astonishingly recently), including some who ask queriers to include the opening pages, a synopsis, and/or other writing samples with their queries. Since few agents open attachments from writers with whom they’ve had no previous contact, many request that those opening pages be included in the body of the e-mail, pasted just below the letter.

See a potential problem there? That’s right: most e-mail programs are not set up for easy tabbing; consequently, business format is the norm for e-mail communications. But that doesn’t mean that the Millicent assigned to screen those queries won’t turn up her nose at non-indented paragraphs in those pages.

Again, why? Are you sitting down, dislikers of indentation?

I hate to be the one to break this to you, but there are Millicents out there (and agents, editors, and contest judges as well) who will leap directly from noticing a lack of indentation and unwarranted spaces between paragraphs to our friend, option (b): if the submitter is not aware of how to format a paragraph of English prose properly, she reasons, aren’t there inevitably more snafus to come?

Not every Millicent — or agent, judge, etc. — will have this knee-jerk reaction, of course. But do you really want to take the chance that she’s not going to seize the opportunity to save herself a little time?

The specter of illiteracy is not the only reason using business format is likely to cost you, either. To a professional reader, the differences between the last two examples would be more than visually jarring — they’d be downright confusing. In standard format, the only reason for a skipped line between paragraphs would be a section break, so Millicent would be expecting the second paragraph to be about something new.

Okay, so a misconception like that might distract her attention for only few consecutive seconds, but let’s not kid ourselves: your garden-variety Millicent is spending less than a minute on most of the submissions she rejects — it’s actually not all that uncommon for her not to make into the second or third paragraph before reaching for the SASE and a copy of that annoying form rejection letter.

Take a moment for the implications of that to sink in fully. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.

While those of you new to the speed with which rejection typically occurs are already in shock, let me add for the sake of anyone who doesn’t already know: those who regard business format as a symptom of creeping illiteracy — hey, I just report the news; I don’t dictate it — are every bit as likely to frown upon it just as much in a query letter or synopsis as in a manuscript submission.

Time loss is not the only reason she might take umbrage at momentary confusion. Let me let you in on a little secret: professional readers, especially those who inhabit agencies and publishing houses, tend not to be overly fond of having their mental image of the story they are reading at the moment jarred. How do I know this? Well, for one thing, they commonly refer to it as being tricked.

As in, “I hate being tricked by a first paragraph that is about someone other than the protagonist.”

There’s a practical basis to this dislike, of course, but it’s kind of complicated. I wrote a couple of fairly extensive posts on the subject a while back (here’s a link to the first, and here’s a link to the second, in case you’re interested), but I’ll run over the thumbnail version now.

Is everybody comfortably seated? My thumbnails are a tad long. (Just try to get THAT image out of your head anytime soon.)

To get through all of those manuscripts she’s assigned to screen each week, Millicent has to read quite quickly, right? If she doesn’t, she’ll get buried in paper, as basically, she’s got to make it through WAR AND PEACE several times over in a week.

That’s a whole lot of material to remember, by anyone’s standards — and remembering actually is important here. If she decides to allow a manuscript to make it to the next level of consideration, she is going to need to be able to tell her boss what the book is about: who the protagonist is, what the conflict is, why that conflict is important enough to the protagonist for the reader to be drawn into it, and so forth.

In essence, she’s going to need to be able to pitch it to the higher-ups at the agency, just as the agent is going to have to do in order to sell the book to an editor, and an editor is going to have to do in order to convince his higher-ups that the publishing house should acquire the book.

And, often, as first-round contest judges will need to do on an evaluation form in order to pass an entry onto the next round.

Okay, brace yourself, because explaining what comes next involves delving into one of the great cosmic mysteries that has long perplexed aspiring writers the world over. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Remember earlier in thus series, when I mentioned that agents and editors don’t read like other people? Well, one of the primary differences is that from line one of page one, they’re already imagining how they’re going to pitch this book. So if paragraph 2 or 3 (or page 2 or 3) suddenly informs them that their mental patter has been about the wrong character, they feel as if they’ve been backing the wrong horse.

And while there may have been any number of perfectly reasonable narrative reasons for the text to concentrate upon an alternate character for the opening, unless the writing and the story have already really wowed Millicent, her resentment about being tricked mistaken about the identity of the protagonist is often sufficient to make her reach for that SASE and form letter.

Feel free to go scream into the nearest pillow over that last piece of convoluted logic; you don’t want to keep that kind of existential cri de coeur pent up inside. I’ll wait until it’s out of your system.

Feel better? Good.

Before you go rushing off to see if your opening paragraphs might possibly be laying you open to a charge of trickery — because, for instance, you might have taken the bold authorial step of noticing that there is more than one human being in the world, and written about an interpersonal relationship accordingly — let’s return to the formatting issue that prompted my little segue into the psychology of resentment. Can we extrapolate any practical lesson about business format from it?

You bet your boots we can: it’s not a good idea to give the impression of a section break where there isn’t one. And when producing pages for people who read all day, you might want to stick to the rules governing written English and indent your paragraphs.

Starting to feel more at home with standard format? Excellent; my evil plan plot for world domination teaching strategy is working. More compare-and-contrast exercises follow in the days to come, so keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part VI: me and you and a boy (?) named Snafu

Johnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_SueJohnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_SueJohnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_Sue
Johnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_SueJohnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_SueJohnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_Sue

Before I launch into today’s installment in our ongoing series on manuscript formatting, I’m delighted to announce some good news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: the ever-fabulous Joel Derfner, author of the genuinely hilarious and moving memoir SWISH: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Happened Instead has a new musical opening off-Broadway tonight! Here’s the skinny:

Signs of Life JoelSigns of Life is about a girl coming of age in Theresienstadt, the Czech town the Nazis set up as a propaganda ghetto to show the rest of the world how well Hitler was treating the Jews. Theresienstadt was filled with artists, musicians, and intellectuals; there were nightly concerts, there were swing bands, there were operas, there were enough instrumentalists to fill two symphony orchestras. So a piece of musical theater seemed like a natural fit.”

Sounds fascinating, Joel, and congratulations! Tickets are available at Ovationtix; an unusually reliable little bird told me that throughout the month of February, if you use the promotion code HOUSE, you can get two tickets for the price of one.

I just mention. Back to business.

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.

That is not always the purpose a title page serves in a submission, alas — if, indeed, the submitter is professional enough to include a title page at all. As I pointed out last time, some writers attempt to consolidate the proper functions of the title page and first page of text into a single sheet of paper. This formatting choice is particularly common for contest entries, for some reason. To get a sense of why this might be problematic, let’s take another look at R.Q. Snafu and Faux Pas’ submissions from yesterday:

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.

So what should a proper title page for a book manuscript or proposal look like? Glad you asked:

Got all three of those images indelibly burned into your cranium? Good. Now weigh the probability that someone who reads as many manuscripts per day as Millicent the agency screener — 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 likelihood of that perception’s coloring any subsequent reading of the manuscript in question.

The answer’s kind of obvious once you know the difference, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

No? Okay, take a gander at another type of title page Millicent often sees — one that contains the right information, but is so unprofessionally formatted that the care with which the writer followed the content rules gets entirely lost:

title picture

Where should I even begin with this one? It’s pretty, undoubtedly, but would anyone care to start listing any of the five things wrong with it?

If you immediately zeroed in on the picture, give yourself a gold star for the day; since there is literally no chance that any image a writer chooses to place on a manuscript or proposal’s title page will end up on the published book’s cover (the usual rationale for including them at this stage), decorating your submission’s title page with photos or drawings will just seem bizarre to Millicent. (And that goes double for Mehitabel, the veteran literary contest judge.)

Award yourself two gold stars if you said Ms. White should nix the red lettering — or any lettering that isn’t black, for that matter — or that her contact information should not have been centered. Pin a great big blue ribbon on yourself, too, if you also pointed out that Ms. White used two different typefaces here, a classic standard format no-no. Not to mention the fact — although I do seem to be mentioning it, don’t I? — that the type size varies.

I feel a rule coming on: like everything else in the manuscript, the title page should be entirely in 12-point type. It should also be in the same font as the rest of the manuscript.

With the usual caveat: unless an agent specifically requests otherwise, of course. Or contest’s rules; double-check for title page restrictions, which are quite common.

Otherwise, you may place the title in boldface if you like, but that’s it on the funkiness scale. No matter how cool your title page looks with 24-point type or the picture you would like to see on the book jacket, resist the urge, because Millicent will be able to tell from across the room if you didn’t.

Don’t believe me that size matters? See for yourself:

Quite a difference, isn’t it? Apart from Mssr. Smith’s tragic font choice and his not having countermanded Word’s annoying propensity to reproduce e-mail addresses in blue ink, did you notice any potentially-distracting problems with this title page?

If you said that it 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, snag yourself yet another gold star from petty cash. 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, and thus should not be formatted as if it were.

Nor should title pages 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.

That loud whoop you just heard was contest-entering writers everywhere realizing that they could squeeze another page of text into their entries.

Before I sign off for today — and while you’ve got title pages on the brain — let me briefly address incisive reader Lucy’s observation on today’s first example. Specifically, here’s what she had to say when I originally introduced it yesterday:

You mention initials being a gender-less faux-pas… what if you have a weird name which is gender confusing? Say a boy named Sue? Should he put Mr. Sue Unfortunate on his title page? Or just Sue Unfortunate?

Lucy’s responding, of course, to the fine print on R.Q.’s first page. Here it is again, to save you some scrolling:

I was having a little fun in that last paragraph with the still surprisingly common writerly belief that the agents and editors 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.

In fact, 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.

Again, I just mention.

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. Go ahead and state your name boldly:

unfortunate2

Even better, 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 from my title page — or my query letter, for that matter?”

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 murmuring, “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 with a few notable exceptions, almost exclusively female writers — have been submitting this way for a couple of hundred years now. It’s not all that hard a code to crack.

Historically, the hide-my-sex-for-success strategy has been used far, far less by male authors — except, of course, that hugely prolific and apparently immortal author, Anonymous, and the reputedly male writers of such ostensibly female-penned classics of wantonness (avert your eyes, children) as THE HAPPY HOOKER and COFFEE, TEA, OR ME?. 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. It’s probably where your parents got the idea to christen you that.

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. You know, to see how if it would look good on a book jacket. So for those of you who have wondered: however improbable it sounds, Anne Mini IS in fact my given name; it just happens to look great in print, thanks to a little paternal forethought.

All of that, of course, is preliminary to answering Lucy’s trenchant question, which is: how on earth does a writer with a gender-ambiguous name delicately convey whether s/he would prefer to be addressed as Ms. or Mr.? Actually, s/he doesn’t, at least on the title page, or indeed in the query letter; that’s a matter for subsequent conversation with the agent. At worst, the agent will call and ask for Ms. Unfortunate; you can live with that, can’t you, Susan?

Besides, unless a writer’s gender is crucial to the story being told, why should it come up before then?

See earlier commentary about being judged by one’s writing, not one’s gender. But if a writer is genuinely worried about it, s/he could always embrace Sue’s strategy above, and use a more gender-definite middle name in the contact information.

And keep your chins up, Susans everywhere — you may have little control over what literary critics will say about your work, but you do have control over what name they call you. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part III: pretty is as pretty does

yard with petals

Another pretty picture for you today, campers, to soothe the fractured soul and as a refresher for those you trapped in that magnificent East Coast blizzard. As Shelley wrote, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

It’s also a reward for virtue, both for those brave enough to be learning the contours of standard format for the first time and those dedicated many who stick with it every time I revisit the topic. Believe me, feedback and questions from both categories of intrepid reader have made Author! Author! an infinitely better, more useful, and friendlier place for writers. You all deserve far more than a nice photo of my back yard, of course, but I am, as always, most grateful.

So here’s another gift, a little trifle that I was going to save for the end of this series: working your way first through this series, then through your manuscript, while undoubtedly time-consuming, will in the long term save you a whole heck of a lot of time.

Was that massive sound wave that just washed over my studio two-thirds of you suddenly crying, “Huh?”

It’s true, honest. While the applying these rules to a manuscript already in progress may seem like a pain, practice makes habit. After a while, the impulse to conform to the rules of standard format becomes second nature for working writers. Trust me, it’s a learned instinct that can save a writer oodles of time and misery come deadline time.

How, you ask? Well, to a writer for whom proper formatting has become automatic, there is no last-minute scramble to change the text. It came into the world correct — which, in turn, saves a writer revision time. Sometimes, those conserved minutes and hours can save the writer’s proverbial backside as well.

Scoff not: even a psychic with a very, very poor track record for predictions could tell you that there will be times in your writing career when you don’t have the time to proofread as closely as you would like, much less check every page to make absolutely certain it looks right. Sometimes, the half an hour it would take to reformat a inconsistent manuscript can make the difference between making and missing a contest deadline.

Or between delighting or disappointing the agent or editor of your dreams currently drumming her fingers on her desk, waiting for you to deliver those minor requested changes to Chapter 7. (You know, that lighthearted little revision changing the protagonist’s sister Wendy to her brother Ted; s/he is no longer a corporate lawyer, but a longshoreman, and Uncle George dies not of a heart attack, but of 12,000 pounds of under-ripe bananas falling on him from a great height when he goes to the docks to tell Ted that Great-Aunt Mandy is now Great-Uncle Armand. If only Ted had kept a better eye on that load-bearing winch!)

Or, for nonfiction writers, delivering the finished book you proposed by the date specified in your publishing contract. Trust me, at any of these junctures, the last thing you’ll want to have to worry about are consistent margins.

Perversely, this is a kind of stress that makes writers happy — perhaps not in the moment we are experiencing it, but on a career-long basis. The more successful you are as a writer — ANY kind of writer — the more often you will be in a hurry, predictably. No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract.

Just ask any author whose agent is breathing down her neck after a deadline has passed. Especially if the writer didn’t know about the deadline until it had already come and gone. (Oh, how I wish I were kidding about that.) And don’t even get me started on the phenomenon of one’s agent calling the day after Thanksgiving to announce, “I told the editor that you could have the last third of the book completely reworked by Christmas — that’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

Think you’re going to want to be worrying about your formatting then? Believe me, you’re going to be kissing yourself in retrospect for learning how to handle the rote matters right the first time, so you can concentrate on the hard stuff. (What would many tons of bananas dropped from that height look like, anyway?)

That’s the good news about how easily standard format sinks into one’s very bones. The down side, 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.

The implications of this mindset are vast. First, as I mentioned yesterday, if an agent or editor requested pages, it would behoove you to send them in standard format, unless s/he SPECIFICALLY tells you otherwise. Ditto with contest entries: it’s just what those who read manuscripts professionally expect to see. It’s so much assumed that s/he probably won’t even mention it, because most agents and editors believe that these rules are already part of every serious book-writer’s MO.

So much so, in fact, that agents who’ve read my blog sometimes ask me why I go over these rules so often. Doesn’t everyone already know them? Isn’t this information already widely available? Aren’t there, you know, books on how to put a manuscript together?

I’ll leave those of you reading this post to answer those for yourselves. Suffice it to say that our old pal Millicent the agency screener believes the answers to be: because I like it, yes, yes, and yes.

Second, this mindset means that seemingly little choices like font and whether to use a doubled dash or an emdash — of which more below — can make a rather hefty difference to how Millicent perceives a manuscript. (Yes, I know: I point this out with some frequency. However, as it still seems to come as a great surprise to the vast majority aspiring writers; I can only assume that my voice hasn’t been carrying very far the last 700 times I’ve said it.)

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but professional-level critique is HARSH; it’s like having your unmade-up face examined under a very, very bright light by someone who isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings by pointing out flaws. In the industry, this level of scrutiny is not considered even remotely mean.

Actually, if your work generates tell-it-like-it-is feedback from a pro, you should be a bit flattered — it’s how they habitually treat professional authors. Yet the aforementioned vast majority of submitting writers seem to assume, at least implicitly, that agents and their staffs will be hugely sympathetic readers of their submissions, willing to overlook technical problems because of the quality of the writing or the strength of the story.

I’m not going to lie to you, though — every once in a very, very long while, the odd exception that justifies this belief does in fact occur. If the writing is absolutely beautiful, or the story is drool-worthy, but the formatting is all akimbo and the spelling is lousy, there’s an outside chance that someone at an agency might be in a saintly enough mood to overlook the problems and take a chance on the writer.

You could also have a Horatio Alger moment where you find a billionaire’s wallet, return it to him still stuffed with thousand-dollar bills, and he adopts you as his new-found son or daughter. Anything is possible, of course.

But it’s probably prudent to assume, when your writing’s at stake, that yours is not going to be the one in 10,000,000 exception.

Virtually all of the time, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to an improperly-formatted manuscript is the same as to one that is dull but technically perfect: speedy rejection. From a writerly point of view, this is indeed trying. Yet as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before, I do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules.

Sorry. No matter how much I would like to absolve you from some of them, it is outside my power. Take it up with the fairy godmother who neglected to endow me with that gift at birth, okay?

Until you have successfully made your case with her, I’m going to stick to using the skills that she did grant me, a childhood surrounded by professional writers and editors who made me learn to do it the right way the first time. As in my fifth-grade history paper was in standard format; I can still hear my mother blithely dismissing my poor, befuddled teacher’s protests that none of the other kids in the class were typing their papers with, “Well, honestly, if Annie doesn’t get into the habit of including slug lines now, where will she be in twenty years?”

Where, indeed? The strictures of standard format are hardly something that she would have wanted me to pick up on the street, after all.

So let’s start inculcating some lifetime habits, shall we? To recap from earlier posts:

(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. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.

(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? If not, this would be a dandy time to pipe up with questions. While you’re formulating ‘em, let’s move on.

(12) The beginning of EVERY paragraph of text should be indented .5 inch. No exceptions, ever.
The usual way this rule is expressed — and, indeed, the way I expressed it as recently as the last time I went over standard format — is indent every paragraph 5 spaces. MS Word, however, the standard word processing program of the publishing industry, automatically sets its default first tab at .5 inch.. Yet unless you happen to be using an unusually large typeface like Courier, you’ve probably noticed that hitting the space bar five times will not take you to .5 inches away from the left margin; in Times New Roman, it’s more like 8 spaces.

This discrepancy leaves some aspiring writers perplexed, understandably. Clearly, a choice needed to be made here — so why is standard indentation at .5 inch now, rather than at five characters?

History, my dears, history: the five spaces rule is from the days of typewriters. Back in the days when return bars roamed the earth, there were only two typefaces commonly found on typewriters, Pica and Elite. They yielded different sizes of type (Pica roughly the equivalent of Courier, Elite more or less the size of Times New Roman), but as long as writers set a tab five spaces in, and just kept hitting the tab key, manuscripts were at least consistent.

After the advent of the home computer, however, computer-generated manuscripts have become the norm. The array of possible typefaces exploded. Rather than simply accepting that every font would have slightly different indentations, the publishing industry (and the manufacturers of Word) simply came to expect that writers everywhere would keep hitting the tab key, rather than hand-spacing five times at the beginning of each paragraph. The result: the amount of space from the left margin became standardized, so that every manuscript, regardless of font, would be indented the same amount.

So why pick .5 inch as the standard indentation? Well, Elite was roughly the size of Times New Roman, 12 characters per inch. Pica was about the size of Courier, 10 characters per inch. The automatic tab at .5 inch, therefore, is pretty much exactly five spaces from the left margin in Pica.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that in this instance, at least, Word’s default settings are the writer’s friend. Keep on hitting that tab key.

Which brings me back to the no exceptions, ever, part: NOTHING you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format. And for a pretty good reason: despite the fact that everyone from CEOs to the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena has been known to use block format from time to time (blogs are set up to use nothing else, right?), technically, non-indented paragraphs are not proper for English prose.

Period. That being the case, what do you think Millicent’s first reaction to a non-indented page 1 is likely to be?

That loud clicking sound that some of you may have found distracting was the sound of light bulbs going on over the heads of all of those readers who have been submitting their manuscripts (and probably their queries as well) in block paragraphs. Yes, what all of you newly well-lit souls are thinking right now is quite true: those submissions may well have been rejected at first glance by a Millicent in a bad mood. (And when, really, is she not?)

Yes, even if the writer submitted those manuscripts via e-mail. (See why I’m always harping on how submitting in hard copy, or at the very worst as a Word attachment, is inherently better for a submitter?) And that’s a kinder response than Mehitabel the veteran contest judge would have had: she would have looked at a block-formatted first page and sighed, “Well, that’s one that can’t make the finals.”

Why the knee-jerk response? Well, although literacy has become decreasingly valued in the world at large, the people who have devoted themselves to bringing good writing to publications still tend to take it awfully darned seriously. 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.

Why, you ask? Well, 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, incidentally. 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.

I’m serious about that being the ONLY exception: skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text, and for no other reason.

Really, this guideline 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 in all of its glory).

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 practically 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 professional book manuscript or proposal is not, nor should it be, formatted like any published piece of writing.

A few hands have been waving urgently in the air since I started this section. “But Anne!” those of you who have seen conflicting advice point out, “I’ve always heard that there are specific markers for section breaks! Shouldn’t I, you know, use them?”

I wouldn’t advise including these throwbacks to the age of typewriters — the * * * section break is no longer necessary in a submission to an agency or publishing house, nor is the #. So unless you’re entering a contest that specifically calls for them, or the agency to which you’re planning to submit mentions a preference for them in its submission requirements, it’s safe to assume that professional readers won’t expect to see them in a book manuscript or proposal.

Why were these symbols ever used at all? To alert the typesetter that the missing line of text was intentional.

That being said, although most Millicents will roll their eyes upon seeing one of these old-fashioned symbols, they tend not to take too much umbrage at it, because the # is in fact proper for short story format. A writer can usually get away with including them. However, since every agent I know makes old-fashioned writers take these markers out of book manuscripts prior to submission, it’s going to save you time in the long run to get into the habit of trusting the reader to understand what a skipped line means.

(Actually, I do know a grand total of one agent who allows his clients to use short-story formatting in book manuscripts. But only if they write literary fiction and have a long resume of short story publications. He is more than capable of conveying this preference to his clients, however.)

One caveat to contest-entrants: do check contest rules carefully, because some competitions still require * or #. You’d be amazed at how seldom many long-running literary contests update their rules.

(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 the words and phrases mentioned above. And just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. As will anyone who learned how to format a manuscript before the home computer became common, for the exceedingly simple reason that the average typewriter doesn’t feature italic keys as well as regular type; underlining used to be the only option.

DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards. And although I remain fond of typewriters — growing up in a house filled with writers, the sound used to lull me to sleep as a child — the fact is, the publishing industry now assumes that all manuscripts are produced on computers. In Word, even.

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

Professional readers are AMAZED at how often otherwise perfectly-formatted manuscripts get this rule backwards — seriously, it’s a common topic of conversation at the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. (You already knew that the conference center’s bar is the single best place to meet most of the agents, editors, and authors presenting at the average writers’ conference, didn’t you?) According to this informal and often not entirely sober polling data, an aspiring writer would have to be consulting a very, very outdated list of formatting restrictions to believe that underlining is ever acceptable.

Again, 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. Like, say, before submitting your manuscript — because if Millicent happens to be having a bad day (again, what’s the probability?) when she happens upon underlining in a submission, she is very, very likely to roll her eyes and think, “Oh, God, not another one.”

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. So when should you use them and why?

(a) 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?

(b) The logic behind using italics for emphasis, as we’ve all seen a million times in print, is even more straightforward: writers used to use underlining for this. So did hand-writers.

(c) Some authors like to use italics to indicate thought, but there is no hard-and-fast rule on this. Before you make the choice, do be aware that many agents and editors actively dislike this practice. Their logic, as I understand it: a good writer should be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type.

I have to confess, as a reader, I’m with them on that last one, but that’s just my personal preference. There are, however, 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.

Which means — again, alas — there is no fail-safe for this choice. Sorry. You submit your work, you take your chances.

I have a few more rules to cover, but this seems like a dandy place to break for the day. Don’t worry if you’re having trouble picturing what all of this might look like on the page: next week, I’m going to be showing you so many images of actual manuscript pages that you’re going to feel as if you’d gotten locked inside Millicent’s mailbag.

You want to be able to recognize a pretty manuscript when you see one, right? Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part II: the eye of the beholder

Lenten roses

See the nice, pretty Lenten roses? Aren’t they soothing to behold? Don’t they help lower the blood pressure of those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, the ones who tensed up at the very notion of going through the rigors of standard format for manuscripts again?

No? Well, how about those of you hearing about it for the first time? Or those — and I know you’re out there; I heard from one only yesterday — whose chest tighten at the very notion of writers talking about manuscript presentation amongst themselves at all?

I’ll admit it: it’s a stressful topic, enough so that each time I go over it (on average, 2-3 times per year), I ask myself at least thrice why I’m putting myself — and the rest of you — through it. Delving into the nitty-gritty of the logic behind those pesky rules is no fun by anyone’s standards. And every time I have broached the subject formally, those who have heard rumors elsewhere that something has changed leap upon my well-intentioned little gazelles of advice with the ferocity of hungry lions, demanding that I either recant my not at all heretical beliefs or, as I mentioned yesterday, to compel literally every other writing advice-giver in North America to agree to abide by precisely the same rules.

To dispel any illusions up front: neither of those things is going to happen. In my professional experience, the formatting I’m discussing here is indeed important, and not just in theory. I have sold books adhering to these rules; my editing clients have sold books using them. So I feel entirely comfortable in saying that manuscripts formatted in this manner tend to look professional to people who handle manuscripts for a living.

Does that mean every professional reader, everywhere, every time, will want to see your work formatted this way? No, of course not: should you happen to be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest that specifically asks you to do something else, obviously, you should give him, her, or it what he wants to see.

That’s just common sense, right? Not to mention basic courtesy.

In fact, I would actively encourage you not only to check the standard agency guides for expressions of these preferences, but to run an internet search on any individual agent to whom you were planning to submit, to double-check that s/he hasn’t stated loud and clear that, for instance, s/he prefers only a single space after a period or a colon. Admittedly, it requires a bit more effort on the submitter’s part, but hey, it’s worth it.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: if an agent or editor has been kind enough to take the time to tell aspiring writers precisely what s/he wants, a savvy writer should pay attention.

Again, that’s just being both smart and polite, isn’t it?

I spot some timid hands raised out there. “But Anne,” point out some confused by conflicting advice — and who could blame them, given the multiplicity of it? “I’ve been doing my homework, and the vast majority of the guide listings and websites I’m seeing don’t talk about format at all. What should I do then?”

Glad you asked. In my opinion — and it’s just my opinion, mind — the best course is to adhere to the rules of standard format.

That’s why I revisit this topic so often. But to repeat the disclaimer I’ve run every single time I’ve run a series on formatting: these are the rules that I use myself, the ones that my lengthy experience tells me work. There are, however, other rules out there, presented by some very credible sources. If you find other guidelines that make sense to you, use them with my good wishes.

Seriously: as far as I’m concerned, what you do with your manuscript up to you; I’m only trying to be helpful here. That’s why I provide such extensive explanations for each of my suggested guidelines — so my readers may consider the various recommendations out there and form their own opinions.

You’re smart people; I know you’re up to the challenge.

I’m also confident that my readers are savvy enough to understand that paying attention to how a manuscript looks does not imply that how it is written doesn’t make a difference. Of course, writing talent, style, and originality count. Yet in order to notice any of those, a reader has to approach the page with a willingness to be wowed.

That willingness can wilt rapidly in the face of incorrect formatting — which isn’t, in response to what half of you just thought, necessarily the result of mere market-mindedness on the part of the reader. After you’ve read a few hundred or thousand manuscripts, deviations from standard format leap out at you. As do spelling and grammatical errors, phrase repetition, clichés, and all of the writing problems we’ve all heard so much about at writers’ conferences.

They’re distractions from your good writing, in other words. My goal here is to help you minimize the distractions that would catch the eye first.

I hear those of you who have spent years slaving over your craft groaning out there — believe me, I sympathize. For those of you who have not already started composing your first drafts in standard format (which will save you a LOT of time in the long run, incidentally), I fully realize that many of the tiny-but-pervasive changes I am about to suggest that you make to your manuscript are going to be irksome to implement. Reformatting a manuscript is time-consuming and tedious, and I would be the first to admit that at first, some of these rules can seem arbitrary.

At least on their faces. Quite a few of these restrictions remain beloved even in the age of electronic submissions because they render a manuscript a heck of a lot easier to edit — and to read, in either hard or soft copy. As I will show later in this series, a lot of these rules exist for completely practical purposes — designed, for instance, to maximize white space in which the editor may scrawl trenchant comments like, “Wait, wasn’t the protagonist’s sister named Maeve in the last chapter? Why is she Belinda here?”

One last, quick caveat before I launch back into the list: the standard format restrictions I’m listing here are not intended to be applied to short stories, poetry, journalistic articles, academic articles, or indeed any other form of writing. The guidelines in this series are for BOOK manuscripts and proposals, and thus should not be applied to other kinds of writing. Similarly, the standards applicable to magazine articles, short stories, dissertations, etc. should not be applied to book proposals and manuscripts.

For the guidelines for these, you may — and should — seek elsewhere. (See my earlier disclaimer of omniscience.)

Everyone clear on that and ready to dive back into the matter at hand? Excellent. To recap from yesterday:

(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. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Is everyone happy with those? PLEASE pipe up with questions, if not. In the meantime, let’s move on.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.

No exceptions, please. No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type.

Yes, even on the title page, where almost everyone gets a little wacky the first time out. No pictures or symbols here, either, please. Just the facts. (If you don’t know how to format a title page professionally, please see the TITLE PAGE category on the list at right.)

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term for title pages with 24-point fonts, fancy typefaces, and illustrations.

It’s high school book report. Need I say more?

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, it’s not mandatory.

Yes, you read that correctly: you may place your title in boldface on the title page, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be bolded. (Unless it’s a section heading in a nonfiction proposal or manuscript — but don’t worry about that for now; I’ll be showing you how to format both a book proposal and a section break later on in this series, I promise.)

This seems like an odd one, right? Actually, the no-bolding rule is a throwback to the old typewriter days, where only very fancy machines indeed could darken selected type. So historically, using bold in-text is considered a bit tacky for the same reason that wearing white shoes before Memorial Day is in certain circles: it’s a subtle display of wealth.

You didn’t think all of those white shoes the Victorians wore cleaned themselves, did you? Shiny white shoes equaled scads of busily-polishing staff.

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

This may seem like a little thing, but you’d be surprised how often violating this rule results in instantaneous rejection. Even if you take no other advice from this series, please remember to number your pages.

Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission or contest entry. It ranks right up there on their rudeness scale with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, “Dear Agent.”

Why? Gravity, my friends, gravity. What goes up tends to come down — and if the object in question happens to be an unbound stack of paper…

Did that seem like an abstract metaphor? Not at all. Picture, if you will, two manuscript-bearing interns colliding in an agency hallway.

You may giggle, but anyone who has ever worked with submissions has first-hand experience of this, as well as what comes next: after the blizzard of flying papers dies down, and the two combatants rehash that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial’s dialogue (“You got romance novel in my literary fiction!” “You got literary fiction in my romance novel!”), what needs to happen?

Yup. Some luckless soul has to put all of those pages back in the proper order. Put yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: just how much more irksome is that task going to be if the pages are not numbered?

Number your pages. Trust me, it is far, far, FAR easier for Millicent to toss the entire thing into the reject pile than to spend the hours required to guess which bite-sized piece of storyline belongs before which.

FYI, the first page of the text proper is page 1 of the text, not the title page, and should be numbered as such. If your opus has an introduction or preface, the first page of THAT is page 1, not the first page of chapter 1.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: BECAUSE A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD NOT LOOK IDENTICAL TO A PUBLISHED BOOK.

The title page is not the only one commonly mislabeled as page one, by the way: epigraphs — those quotations from other authors’ books so dear to the hearts of writers everywhere — should not appear on their own page in a manuscript, as they sometimes do in published books. If you feel you must include one (considering that 99.9999% of the time, Millicent will just skip over it), include it between the chapter title and text on page 1.

If that last sentence left your head in a whirl, don’t worry — I’ll show you how to format epigraphs properly later in this series. (Yes, including some discussion of that cryptic comment about Millicent. All in the fullness of time, my friends.)

(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.

Including the slug line means that every page of the manuscript has the author’s name on it — a great idea, should you, say, want an agent or editor to be able to contact you after s/he’s fallen in love with it. The slug line should appear in the upper left-hand margin (although no one will sue you if you put it in the upper right-hand margin, left is the time-honored location) of every page of the text EXCEPT the title page (which should have nothing in the header or footer at all).

A trifle confused by all that terminology? I’m not entirely surprised. Most writing handbooks and courses tend to be a trifle vague about this particular requirement, so allow me to define the relevant terms: a well-constructed slug line includes the author’s last name, book title, and page number, to deal with that intern-collision problem I mentioned earlier. (The slug line allows the aforementioned luckless individual to tell the romance novel from the literary fiction.) And the header, for those of you who have not yet surrendered to Microsoft Word’s lexicon, is the 1-inch margin at the top of each page.

Traditionally, the slug line appears all in capital letters, but it’s not strictly necessary. Being something of a traditionalist, the third page of my memoir has a slug line that looks like this:

MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3

Since the ONLY place a page number should appear on a page of text is in the slug line, if you are in the habit of placing numbers wacky places like the middle of the footer, do be aware that it does not look strictly professional to, well, professionals. Double-check that your word processing program is not automatically adding extraneous page markers.

Do not, I beg of you, yield like so many aspiring writers to the insidious temptation add little stylistic bells and whistles to the slug line, to tart it up. Page numbers should not have dashes on either side of them, be in italics or bold, or be preceded by the word “page.”

If that news strikes you as a disappointing barrier to your self-expression, remember, professional readers do not regard formatting choices as conveyers of personal style. The point here is not to make your slug line stand out for its innovative style, but for your manuscript’s pages to look exactly like every other professional writer’s.

And yes, I AM going to keep making that point over and over until you are murmuring it in your sleep. Why do you ask?

If you have a subtitle, don’t include it in the slug line — and if you have a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep the slug line from running all the way across the top of the page. The goal here is to identify the manuscript at a glance, not to reproduce the entire book jacket.

Why not? Well, technically, a slug line should be 30 spaces or less, but there’s no need to stress about that in the computer age. (A slug, you see, is the old-fashioned printer’s term for a pre-set chunk of, you guessed it, 30 spaces of type. Aren’t you glad you asked?)

Keep it brief. For instance. my agent is currently circulating a novel of mine entitled THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB — 26 characters, counting spaces. Since my last name is quite short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:

MINI/THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB/1

If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters all by itself, including dash — I might well feel compelled to abbreviate:

MONTENEGRO-COPPERFIELD/BUDDHA/1

Incidentally, should anyone out there come up with a bright idea for a category heading on the archive list for this issue other than slug line — a category that already exists, but is unlikely to be found by anyone not already familiar with the term — I’d be delighted to hear suggestions. I’ve called it a slug line ever since I first clapped eyes on a professional manuscript (an event that took place so long ago my response to the sight was not, “What’s that at the top of the page, Daddy?” but “Goo!”), so I’m not coming up with a good alternative. Thanks.

(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.

That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally. Don’t panic if you’re having trouble visualizing this — I’ll be giving concrete examples of what the first page of a chapter should look like later in this series.

The chapter title (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the FIRST line of the first page — not on the last line before the text, as so many writers mistakenly do. The chapter title or number should be centered, and it should NOT be in boldface or underlined.

Why shouldn’t the title appear immediately above the text, as one so often sees — and, frankly, as some other writing sites advise? Because that’s where the title of a short story lives, not a book’s.

Very frequently, agents, editors and contest judges are presented with improperly-formatted first pages that include the title of the book, “by Author’s Name,” and/or the writer’s contact information in the space above the text. This is classic rookie mistake. To professional eyes, a manuscript that includes any of this information on the first page of the manuscript (other than in the slug line, of course) seems term paper-ish.

So where does all of that necessary contact information go, you ask? Read on.

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

This is one of the main differences between a short story submission (say, to a literary journal) and a novel submission. To submit a manuscript — or contest entry, for that matter — with this information on page 1 is roughly the equivalent of taking a great big red marker and scrawling, “I don’t know much about the business of publishing,” across it.

Just don’t do it.

“But wait,” I hear some of you out there murmuring, “I need a title page? Since when?”

Funny you should mention that, because…

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

This one seems to come as a surprise to a lot of aspiring writers. You should ALWAYS include a title page with ANY submission of ANY length, including contest entries and the chapters you send after the agent has fallen in love with your first 50 pages.

Why, you ask? Because it is genuinely unheard-of for a professional manuscript not to have a title page: literally every manuscript that any agent in North America sends to any editor in hard copy will include one, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s the page that includes the agent’s contact information. Yet, astonishingly, a good 95% of writers submitting to agencies seem to be unaware that including it is industry standard.

On the bright side, this means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page with your work, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope. It’s never too early to make a good first impression, right?

If you do not know how to format a proper title page — and yes, Virginia, there IS a special format for it, too — please see the TITLE PAGE category at right. Or wait a few days until I cover it later in this series.

Again, it’s entirely up to you. No pressure here.

Before anyone who currently has a submission languishing at an agency begins to panic: you’re almost certainly not going to get rejected SOLELY for forgetting to include a title page. Omitting a title page is too common a mistake to be an automatic deal-breaker for most Millicents. Ditto with improperly-formatted ones. And yes, one does occasionally run into an agent at a conference or one blogging online who says she doesn’t care one way or the other about whether a submission has a title page resting on top at all.

Bully for them for being so open-minded, but as I point out roughly 127,342 times per year in this forum, how can you be sure that the person deciding whether to pass your submission upstairs or reject it isn’t a stickler for professionalism?

I sense some shoulders sagging at the very notion of all the work it’s going to be to alter your pages before you send them out. Please believe me when I tell you that, as tedious as it is to change these things in your manuscript now, by the time you’re on your third or fourth book, it will be second nature to you. Why, I’ll bet that the next time you sit down to begin a new writing project, you will automatically format it correctly. Think of all of the time THAT will save you down the line.

Hey, in this business, you learn to take joy in the small victories.

Next time, I’m going to finish going through the guidelines, so we may move on swiftly to concrete examples of what all of this formatting looks like in practice — because, again, I’m not asking you to embrace these guidelines just because I say so. I want you to have enough information on the subject to be able to understand why following them might be a good idea.

I’m funny that way. Keep up the good work!

Let’s continue with the basics: how do professional writers format manuscripts, anyway?

Buster Keaton reading

Some of you are already yawning, aren’t you? “Manuscript formatting?” I hear many an aspiring writer grumbling. “What on earth does that have to do with landing an agent and/or getting my book published?”

Plenty, actually; submitting the way professional authors do gives an aspiring writer a competitive advantage in submission. Before I go into why, bear with me for a moment while I share a little editorial anecdote.

Remember how I was telling you that a hefty percentage of the aspiring writers of North America tend to gird their loins, ratchet up their nerves, and send out queries and requested materials in early January of each year, in fulfillment of New Year’s resolutions to get cracking on getting published? These same resolutions lead freelance editors’ desks, or at any rate their e-mail inboxes, to groan under the weight of clients eager to seek their counsel. It’s also the time of year when we can get a preview of what Millicent the agency screener is likely to see for the next eleven months.

I can already tell you this year’s trend, alas: not double-spacing manuscripts. Last year, it was not indenting paragraphs.

A few of my fellow editors laughed at me when I brought it up at lunch last month, deploring that so many aspiring writers had apparently not done their homework on how manuscripts should be formatted. “Oh, come on, Anne,” they scoffed. “The formatting isn’t really the problem for most of those writers. Most of the manuscripts you’re talking about would have gotten rejected by agencies, anyway; the ones who don’t double-space tend not to spell-check, either.”

I sensed a bit of buck-passing. “But what about the ones who do spell-check — and proof-read, and take the time to get feedback on their work before sending it out? Improper formatting can as easily be the result of simple ignorance as of authorial laziness. I’m constantly meeting good writers new to the biz who haven’t the vaguest idea about what a professional manuscript looks like, for the exceedingly simple reason that they’ve never seen one.”

More scoffing. One of the editors even trotted out that old agents’ truism: “If a writer’s serious about getting published, he’ll take the time to learn what the formatting norms are. There are books that explain how to do it.”

“Not to mention your blog, Anne,” another quipped. “How often are you revisiting the rules of standard format these days? Once a year? Twice?”

Actually, it used to be three, but that was before I learned to keep reminding readers to check the archive lists. Still, I wasn’t about to let my friends off that easy. “I’m not denying that it’s possible to learn how to do it right; I’m just pointing out that most of the time, the writers whose manuscripts get rejected unread because of formatting problems have no idea that they’re not getting rejected on the writing itself.” Half the table looked skeptical. “Okay, fine — let’s do a little survey. Hands up: how many of you would read a single-spaced manuscript, if a potential client sent it to you? Or even one-and-a-half spacing? What about non-indented paragraphs?”

Crickets.

And that, my friends, should tell you a lot about just how seriously people who read manuscripts for a living take formatting. Even amongst the open-minded, there is a deep, pervasive prejudice against manuscripts that don’t look right cosmetically. Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, Mehitabel the contest judge: all of these readers whose approval a manuscript must get in order to land an agent, get picked up by a publisher, or make the finals of a contest are so conditioned to expect professional formatting that when they see one that deviates from the rules in any significant respect, they tend to assume, as did the editors above, that the writer is falling down on the job in other respects.

What does that mean in practical terms? Usually, that incorrectly-formatted manuscripts and contest entries are rejected unread.

Why? Well, it’s one of the easiest ways conceivable to narrow the submission pool — which is, if you think about it, job #1 for Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel. Do the math: if the average agent receives 800-1200 queries per week and agrees to read even five percent of the manuscripts (high for most agents, by the way), that’s 40-60 manuscripts per week, and thus somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000-3,000 per year. Since even a very successful agent could take on, at most, 4-5 new clients per year, Millicent had better narrow down that applicant pool, pronto, hadn’t she?

So had Maury. So had Mehitabel. Isn’t it fortunate, then, that the vast majority of submitters help these first readers out by presenting their writing unprofessionally?

Yes — really: the majority of submissions are not professionally formatted. They either resemble published books (which is not correct for a manuscript submission), short stories (ditto), or just whatever the submitter happens to think looks nice on the page (extrapolate the answer from the previous two).

All of which makes Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel shout, “Hallelujah,” especially of late, when both query and submission rates have been skyrocketing. A lot of closet writers for whom writing a book has always been plan B — and with the economy in its current state, many folks seem to be pulling partially-finished manuscripts out of desk drawers these days. (Well, okay, off their hard disks, but it amounts to the same thing.) Because of the aforementioned books coming out of drawers, agencies and small publishing houses are seeing more queries than usual right now. The timing’s a tad unfortunate, since this is also a period where publishing houses have been laying off editors and other staff.

Translation: you know how fierce the competition to get picked up by an agent already was before the economy went south? It’s become even tougher.

While those of you who have been at it awhile are still reeling from the implications of that last statement, let me slip a few hard facts under the noses of those who have yet to submit for the first time:

(1) There exists a standard format for manuscripts to which US-based agents and editors expect submissions to adhere, regardless of whether those manuscripts are produced by seasoned pros with many book sales under their belts or those brand-new to the biz, and thus

(2) using fancy typefaces, including cover artwork, printing manuscript pages on colored paper, and/or any other deviations from standard format in one’s submission will NOT be regarded as interesting expressions of the author’s individual point of view, but rather as evidence that the author doesn’t know about (1). As a result,

(3) manuscripts submitted in standard format tend to be treated with SUBSTANTIALLY more respect by agency screeners, editorial assistants, contest judges, and pretty much everyone who happens to read unpublished prose for a living. Despite this fact,

(4) one does occasionally hear agents and editors ask for deviations from standard format; one should definitely give them precisely what they ask to see. However, it’s never advisable to generalize what one individual says s/he wants into a brand-new trend sweeping the industry. Nor is it a good idea to ape the formatting choices one sees in a published book, because

(5) book manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, and for many excellent, practical reasons. That being the case, those who screen manuscripts for a living tend to draw unfavorable conclusions about submissions that do aspire to book formatting, much as they do when aspiring writers are not aware that

(6) standard format for book-length manuscripts is NOT business format, either, and just using what you learned about short stories won’t do, either. Nor is it necessarily identical to what your word processor’s grammar checker will ask you to do, or even the AP style one sees in newspapers and magazines. None of these will look correct to an agent or editor who deals with book manuscripts, because the norms there are very specific. This may seem nit-picky and irrelevant to the quality of the writing in question, but think about it:

(7) if a host asks you to a formal dinner, it’s only polite to wear formal attire; a guest who shows up in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt is going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. (If it’s not clear to you why, review point 2.) Similarly, when placed side-by-side with professional manuscripts, as a successful submission inevitably will, a wackily put-together manuscript will stand out as unprofessional, a phenomenon that all too often leads to

(8) most manuscript submissions get rejected on page 1. Not always because it deviates from standard format — although the vast majority of submissions do — but because an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript already has one strike against it, and who needs that? Ultimately,

(9) it’s just not worth your while to try to fudge your way out of these standards, since the price of a submission’s annoying a professional reader can be so high. And as I mentioned above, no matter how many times my readers, students, and editing clients ask me if agents, editors, and contest judges are REALLY serious about them, I’m not going to give you permission to ignore any single one of the standard format strictures. No way. Stop asking, already.

Why might knowing all this — and, more importantly, acting upon this knowledge — translate into higher acceptance rates, typically? Well, the aspiring writer who acts upon this information conscientiously is probably producing submissions within the top 2% of what crosses Millicent the agency screener’s desk on any given day.

Yes, really. So if any of the information on the list above came as a surprise to you in any way, it’s incredibly important that you should join me on a tiptoe through the intricacies of standard format.

I implore those of you who have been through this material with me before: don’t just skip these posts on standard format. I see manuscripts all the time by experienced albeit unpublished writers that contain standard format violations; heck, they occasionally turn up in the work of published writers, if the complaints their agents and editors make in those bars that are never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America are to be believed.

Seriously, all of us could use a review from time to time — say, the twice per year I bring the matter up here. Because, you see, I am far from the only professional reader who takes umbrage, when manuscripts deviate from certain time-honored restrictions. Trust me, Millicent started twitching at the very sight of them before she’d had her job three weeks.

Yes, even if the formatting in question would be perfectly legitimate in other writing environments. (See points 2, 3, 5, and 6 above, for instance.) And yes, yes, oh, yes, even if the deviation is precisely what some agent, editor, writing guru, or darned fool writing expert like me has suddenly announced to the world is the new norm.

Millicent didn’t get that memo.

Think about it: why would she, unless she happens to work for the agent-who-blogs or editor-who-is-trying-to-be-helpful who promulgated the new advice? Indeed, why would anyone who works with manuscripts for a living go out looking to see what folks outside the industry — or, at minimum, outside her agency’s office — are demanding of writers these days, when the basics of standard format have actually changed very little for decades?

Actually, it would be very much against her self-interest to go trolling for such information, because –chant it with e now — it’s so much easier just to regard submissions that don’t adhere to standard format as inherently unprofessional, and thus (by implication) less likely to contain writing destined to take the publishing world by storm.

To put it bluntly, it would slow her per-submission rejection time.

I hope no one out there fainted, because this is a vital fact for any submitting writer to understand: the folks who read submissions (and queries) in order to decide who gets a break and who doesn’t are in a HURRY. Remember the stats above; these people have a heck of a lot of reading to do.

As we saw in our series on how manuscripts get published, in the face of that many pieces of paper to plow through, even the reading of submissions tends to be awfully rushed: the goal becomes to weed out as many as possible as quickly as possible, rather than seeking out gems. Once a professional reader like Millicent has been at it for a while, s/he will usually develop a knack for coming to a conclusion about a piece of writing within the first paragraph or two.

Sometimes even within the first line or two. (For a fairly frightening run-down of the common first-page rejection reasons, you might want to check out the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the list at right.)

What does this trigger-happiness mean for aspiring writers who scoff at standard format, or just don’t know about it? Well, it’s not good: agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not).

And unfortunately for writers unaware of the rules, a non-standard manuscript is child’s play to spot from the moment a professional reader lays eyes upon it. That can be an extremely serious problem for a submission, because — wait for it — being identified as not professionally formatted renders it FAR more likely to be rejected.

Why? Shout it with me now: agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that a screener’s primary goal is to weed out the one she is reading at the moment.

The faster she can do that, the better, to move through that mountain of paper on her desk. So a first page that cries out the moment Millicent lays eyes on it, “This writer is brand-new to the game and will require quite a bit of your boss’ time to coach into being able to produce a manuscript that an agent would be comfortable submitting to an editor!” is a downright gift to her: she can feel completely comfortable rejecting it at the very first typo, cliché, or word choice she doesn’t happen to like.

Heck, she might not even wait to spot any of the above. She might just say, “Oh, look — single-spacing. Next!”

This dark, dark cloud is not without its proverbial silver lining, however. By logical extension, the more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be read with interest by a screener in a hurry.

See now why aspiring writers cognizant of points (1) – (9) enjoy a considerable competitive advantage at submission time?

I don’t know about you, but I’m all for anything that helps a good writer’s work get taken more seriously, especially in the current super-tight submission environment, which is more rejection-happy than I’ve ever seen it — and I’ve been listening to writers, agents, and editors complain about the state of the literary market since I was in my cradle. (Literally. Long story.)

Right now, Harry Houdini himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on extricating oneself from tight situations. (And if that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your industry-speak.)

So to help give you that competitive edge, I’m going to start running though the rules of standard format — and no, Virginia, none of them are negotiable.

(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.

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY asks you to do otherwise. And I’m dead serious about using ONLY white paper: ecru paper, no off-white, no Dr. Seuss-type stripes.

Yes, yes, buff or parchment can look very nice, but there’s a strategic reason to use bright white paper: very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader out there, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.

The ONLY colored paper that should ever go anywhere near a manuscript is the single sheet that separates one copy of a submission or book proposal from the next, so it is easy for an agent to see where to break the stack. (But you don’t need to know about that until your agent asks you to send 15 copies of your book for submitting to editors. Put it out of your mind for now.)

Nice, clear, dark print is optimal here, so do spring for a new printer cartridge. You’d be amazed (at least, I hope you would) at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions; it’s as though the author dunked in a swiftly-flowing river several times before popping it in the mail.

Which is sad, because submissions with poor print quality are — you’re ahead of me on this one, aren’t you? — almost never read.

Speaking of never, never, ever, eversubmit a dim photocopy; print out an original, every time, You’d be amazed (at least, I hope you would) at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions; it’s as though the author dunked in a swiftly-flowing river several times before popping it in the mail.

Oh, you may chuckle at the notion of sending out a grainy photocopy, but believe me, any contest judge has seen many, many entries submitted that way. Mehitabel likes them, actually: for every one that pops up, her reading time is shortened. Any guesses why?

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way (again, unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise)

Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the literally millions of pages of submissions that go flying into the agencies and publishing houses every month. Most agencies do not even recycle; as I mentioned in my last series, the vast majority of agencies did not even consider accepting e-mailed queries at all until the anthrax-in-envelopes scare.

I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory. Also, writers would all be granted an extra month a year in which to write, excellent and inexpensive child care while writing, a cedar-lined cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan in which to do it, and a pineapple upside-down cake on Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. Perhaps some hard candies on Agatha Christie’s birthday as well, in affluent years, and dancing on Mme. de Staël’s.

But since the unhappy reality is that I do NOT run the universe (see disclaimer above), we shall all have to live with the status quo.

Which is to say: the publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

Unbound means precisely what it says: no binding of any kind. You’d be surprised at how often writers violate the thou-shalt-not-bind rule, including paper clips, rubber bands, or even binders with their submissions. Since agents always circulate manuscripts without any sort of binding, these doohickeys just scream, “I’m unfamiliar with the industry.”

SASE, open wide: here comes a returned manuscript.

The ONLY exception to this rule is a nonfiction book proposal — not the manuscript, just the proposal — which is typically presented UNBOUND in a black folder, the kind with horizontal pockets. (For tips on how a book proposal should be presented, please see the aptly-titled BOOK PROPOSALS category on the list at right.)

Which doesn’t mean that you aren’t perfectly welcome to print double-sided or bind copies for your own purposes; just don’t show your work to the pros that way. As Author! Author!’s very first commenter Dave tends to chime in when I bring this up — and helpfully — if you wish to make double-sided, 3-hole-punched, be-bindered drafts for circulating to your first readers for ease of toting around, be my guest.

But NEVER submit in that manner to a professional reader unless s/he has asked you to do so. Trust me on this one.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified, as published books, e-mails, business letters, and online writing tend to be.

Translation: the left margin should be straight; the right margin should not.

Many fledgling writers find (3) nearly impossible to accept, because it is one of the most visually obvious ways in which a professional manuscript differs from a printed book. They believe, wrongly, that anything that makes their submission look more like what’s on the shelves at Barnes & Noble is inherently professional. In practice, quite the opposite is true.

Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program can replicate that practically effortlessly, if you ask it nicely to do so. Bully for it.

But don’t take advantage of that pleasing capacity, I beg you: the straight margin should be the left one; the right should be ragged, as if you had produced the manuscript on a typewriter.

Fear not if you’re having trouble picturing this: I shall be showing you concrete examples later in this series. For now, you’re just going to have to trust me when I tell you that block-justifying your submission is going to appeal to your garden-variety Millicent about as much as a slap in the face.

Speaking of things I’m going to demonstrate in the days to come, NEVER format a query or cover letter to someone in the industry in business format: indent those paragraphs. (And yes, now that you bring it up, I do intend to show you why. Hold your proverbial horses, already.)

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New; pick one and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Even if you have a strong preference for the lettering in your book when it is published, use one of these typefaces for submission purposes. Personally, I would never dream of allowing a client of mine to submit a manuscript in anything but Times New Roman, nor would I ever submit any of my work in anything else. It is the standard typeface of the publishing industry, just as Courier is the norm of screenwriting.

A tad silly, you say? Perhaps, but it’s one of the bizarre facts of publishing life that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously, and with good reason: these are the typefaces upon which the most commonly-used word count estimations are based. (Psst: if you don’t know why you should be estimating the length of your manuscript rather than using actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

To forestall the usual question someone brings up at this point: yes, most published books ARE in typefaces other than Times or Courier, but typeface decisions for published books are made by the publishing house, not the author. Submission time is not the appropriate period for making your preferences known.

Why? Shout it with me now, understanders of point (5) at the top of this post — MANUSCRIPTS AND PUBLISHED BOOKS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO LOOK THE SAME.

If you’re very nice down the line, after a publishing house has acquired your book, they may listen to your suggestions. They may giggle a little, true, but they might listen. Ditto with the cover and the title, which are — brace yourselves — almost never under the author’s control.

Why? Because these are considered matters of packaging and marketing, not content.

All of which begs the question, of course: why do word processing programs tempt us so many typefaces from which to choose, if we’re not supposed to use them?

Answer: because the people who make word processing programs are not the same people who decide what books get published in North America. Which is why, in case you’re wondering, what Microsoft Word means by word count and what the average agent or editor does are not typically the same thing.

Again, so there.

There are a few agents out there who have their own font preferences (usually Courier, and usually because they also represent screenplays) so do check their websites and/or listings in the standard agency guides. As ever, the golden rule of dealing with an agent you want to represent you is GIVE ‘EM PRECISELY WHAT THEY ASK TO SEE, not what you would like them to see.

Fair warning: if you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Yes, one sees this in a published book occasionally, but I assure you, the choice to indulge in these formatting differences was the editor’s, not the author’s.

Sorry. (See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.)

I’m still sensing some skepticism out there on the font issue, but that may be a hangover from reader reactions to previous series on standard format. Almost invariably, around the time that I bring up Rule #4, someone posts a comment informing me huffily that website X advises something different, that this agent said at a conference she doesn’t care what typeface you use, that a certain manual said that standards have changed from the traditional guidelines I set out here, or some other observation presumably intended to make me rend my garments and cry, “Finally, I see the error of my ways! I guess I’ll disregard the fact that I’ve never seen the change you mention actually in use in a professional manuscript and declare it to be the new norm!”

To save you the trouble and sound like a broken record at the same time: it’s not gonna happen.

I have no doubt that all of these comments are indeed pointing out legitimate differences in advice, but it is not my purpose here to police the net for standardization of advice. If you like guidelines you find elsewhere better, by all means follow them.

All I claim for these rules — and it is not an insubstantial claim — is that nothing I advise here will EVER strike an agent or editor as unprofessional; even if any give agent, editor, or contest judge should happen to harbor personal preferences for other formatting choices, anyone who has been in the biz for a while will recognize pages in standard format as the industry norm.

Why is that important? Adhering to these rules will mean that your writing is going to be judged on your writing, not your formatting. And that, my friends, is nothing at which to sneeze.

Speaking of which: my apologies for being a trifle slow to get to this topic, campers — that flu I had last week has developed into bronchitis, and I try not to post when I’m feverish. Tends to make me a trifle testy. So if I’m a trifle slow in answering questions left in the comments over the next week or so, I’m sure you’ll understand. Rest assured, I’ll get to them just as soon as I stop coughing.

More rules follow next time, of course, as well as buckets more explanation. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, or, how does a book concept make it from a New Year’s resolution to a shelf at Borders?

gutenberg press drawing

Welcome to 2010, long- and short-term members of the Author! Author! community. May this be a year of major steps forward: starting the book of your dreams, finishing the book of your dreams, revising your manuscript until it becomes the book of your dreams, discovering the best agent on earth to represent it, convincing the best agent on earth to represent it, that agent blandishing the ideal editor into reading it, said ideal editor falling in love with it, a lucrative sale and easy publication process, readers eager to bury their noses in it, a second book (or a third, or a fifteenth) that exceeds expectations, a well-deserved Pulitzer prize.

You know, the basics of a writing life well-lived.

An especially hearty howdy-do and handshake for those of you acting on a New Year’s resolution to learn how to get your book into print. Or how to land an agent. Or why a writer might need to land an agent in order to get her book into print. You’ve happened upon this blog at an excellent time, because I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks getting down to those very brass tacks. I’m going to be addressing the two most basic questions of the writerly life:

(1) How does a book go from sitting on an aspiring writer’s desk to being sold in a bookstore?

(2) What, if anything, does an aspiring writer need to know to navigate that trip successfully?

Why go straight to the root of the quest, rather than simply handing those new to the game a couple of one-page sheets of directions? Well, first of all, because there are plenty of advice-givers out there willing to bark unexplained orders at those new to the biz. In my experience, quick-and-dirty isn’t nearly as helpful as carefully-explained. Unless a writer understands why things work the way they do, he’s not only likely to break the rules — he’s not going to be able to improve his game.

Heck, he may not be able to play with the big kids at all. So: let’s talk fundamentals.

That chorus of groans you just heard, newcomers, arose from some of the longer-term readers of this blog who were really, really into my recent series on self-editing. “But Anne,” they whimper, ink-stained fingers gesticulating, didn’t you tell us just the other day that since half the writers in North America suddenly send out queries and submissions” (you’ll be tossing around those terms very soon, newbies, never fear) “as part of their New Year’s resolutions, we should hunker down and wait until mid-February before trying afresh? Wouldn’t that hiatus be a dandy time for, you know, revision?”

Indeed it would be, ink-stained protestors. A review of the basics before leaping back into the fray is never a bad idea. But just to keep it interesting, I’ll make a valiant effort to keep tucking tidbits useful for self-editors into the corners of my next couple of weeks’ posts. I wouldn’t want you to feel that I was ignoring old friends for new.

And let’s face it: a crash course in how the publishing industry works isn’t a bad idea before leaping back into the fray. As I’m sure many of you are already well aware, when a rejection is staring a writer in the face, it’s awfully easy to forget that it isn’t personal; good book concepts and well-written manuscripts is just part of how the system works.

Didn’t expect me to be so up-front about it, did you, newbies? Fair warning: this series is going to be rather disturbing to any writer who believes that the only real test of whether a manuscript is any good is whether it gets published. Or that a good manuscript will always be able to find an agent, and swiftly.

At the risk of repeating myself, that’s just not how it works.

Honest. I’ve been in the game practically since birth, and I’m here to tell you, there is no literature fairy. No winsome sprite will guide an agent to the doorstep of a talented new writer, simply because she is talented; the writer has to take some steps to flag that agent down.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? I haven’t even laid the foundation of gloom-inducing yet, and here I am, waving from a second-floor window.

What I’m about to tell you may well be depressing — heck, it depresses me, and I have an agent — but please, I implore you, stick with this series, even if you are already fairly familiar with, say, how to construct a passable English sentence or to write a query. This is information that everyone even considering trying to bring his book to publication needs to know.

Seriously, it’s to your advantage. Aspiring writers who misunderstand how books do and don’t get published are likely to waste their time and resources on unsolicited submissions that will inevitably get rejected.

In other words, those of you who just murmured, “What’s an unsolicited submission?” are not the people for whom I am writing this. I’m talking to every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice. I want to help you succeed.

So let’s get this baby cranking, as Johann Gutenberg doubtless said to his assistants in 1450 or so.

Because there are several ways a book can end up on a shelf in your local literary emporium, I’m going to break up the question into several parts. First, I’m going to tackle the classic means, publication through a great big publishing house.

But first, a little history — and while we’re at it, let’s debunk a few widely-believed myths.

How books used to get published during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (mistakenly) believe the industry still works
A hundred years ago, the publication process was pretty straightforward: an author wrote a book, contacted an editor at a publishing house, and if the editor liked it, he (it was almost invariably a he) chatted about it with senior staff, persons with whom he may well have shared a dormitory at some elite private college; if he could convince them to take a chance on the manuscript, he would edit it for publication. Printing presses were set in motion, and in due course, the book was available for sale. The publisher sent out advance copies to newspapers, so they could produce reviews.

Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Now, so many books are published in any given year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a well-placed review.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, you’re far more likely to see a review of the eighteenth novel by an already-established author than the brilliant debut another. Assuming that the newspaper or magazine in question even carries book reviews anymore.

Heck, that’s assuming that you’re even reading newspapers anymore.

Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commonly available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence.

This is what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, a manuscript an author sends to an agent or editor without said agent or editor’s having asked to see it. Today, an unsolicited manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread.

Not every aspiring writer believes that, however, because they’ve heard what used to happen to such manuscripts in the days of the Model A: publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.

This ever-burgeoning source of reading material was known as the slush pile. Although solicited submissions (i.e., those that the editor has actually asked to see) have probably always enjoyed a competitive advantage, slush pile manuscripts did occasionally get discovered and published.

They also, predictably, got lost on a fairly regular basis. Thus the old writerly truism: never send anyone the only copy of your manuscript.

That hasn’t always been easy advice to follow, unless one happened to command a personal army of copyists and/or a steno pool; see my earlier comment about historical access to copy machines.

Because there were fewer manuscripts (and publishing houses were more heavily staffed) before the advent of the personal computer, a writer did not need an agent: it was possible to deal directly with the editor who would handle the book, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when jolly old TR (Roosevelt hated being called Teddy) was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.

Times change, as they say; no agent or editor in her right mind would read even a sentence of a hand-written submission today. Another way that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.

The fiction/nonfiction split
Both historically and now, novels were (and are) sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, editors buy first novels that way; until fairly recently, the major publishing houses quite routinely offered fiction writers who had written promising first novels could snag a multi-book contract.

It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well. Usually, there was a pretty good reason for that: the author spent five or ten years, or even a lifetime, cranking out that first novel, but after it hit the big time, her editor began clamoring for the next immediately. The author tossed something together in a year, and poof! Everyone was astonished that the second wasn’t nearly as good as the first.

Hmm, who could have predicted that? As late as the 1980s, not the publishing industry.

As a result, while multi-book fiction contracts still exist — particularly in genre fiction, which is conducive to series-production — they have become substantially less common in the mainstream and women’s fiction markets. Which is to say: the vast majority of fiction is sold on a per-book basis. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books– and have them polished into publishable form before they can sell them.

Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials.

Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work in their book proposals — which is why, in case you’d been wondering, so many nonfiction books are authored by journalists. They tend to have stacks and stacks of clippings on hand.

Why are clippings helpful in selling a nonfiction book to a publisher? Because they prove that some other editor has thought enough of the proposer’s writing to publish it before. Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing.

That does not, however, mean that every nonfiction writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Why not, you ask? Because buying something that does not yet exist obviously entails running the risk that the author may not deliver, the advance for a book sold in this manner is typically paid in three installments, one when the publication contract is signed, another after the editor has received and accepted the manuscript, and a third when the book actually comes out.

Call it an insurance policy for authorial good behavior. Apparently, novelists are regarded as shiftier sorts, because to this day, the only acceptable proof that novelists can write a book is to have already written one.

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? If not, please trot right to the comments and ask a pertinent question.

While we’re waiting, let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries, shall we?

The lingering demise of the slush pile
Just to clear up any misconceptions floating around out there: if you want to sell a book to a major U.S. publisher, you will need an agent to do it for you. The slush pile is no more; currently, all of the major houses will accept only represented manuscripts.

Like any broad-based policy, however, it comes with a few caveats. We’re only talking about the great big publishers here; there are plenty of smaller, independent publishers that do accept direct submission. Very good houses, some of these. One hears tell of some children’s book divisions at major houses that still accept direct submissions; if an editor meets a writer at a conference and positively falls in love with his work, it’s not unheard-of for the editor to help the writer land an agent (usually one with whom the editor has worked recently) in order to side-step the policy. Stuff like that.

But it’s not wise to assume that you’re going to be the exception. If you’re hoping for a contract with a big publisher, get an agent first.

This was not always a prerequisite, of course. Until fairly recently, one element of that fiction/nonfiction split I was regaling you with above was that while novels had to go through an agent, nonfiction writers could submit proposals directly to publishers. Not so much anymore.

You novelists out there are getting a bit restive, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some of you complaining, and who could blame you? “This is starting to seem a trifle discriminatory against my ilk. Nonfiction writers are presenting substantially less writing than fiction writers; a proposal’s what, 40-60 pages, typically? As a novelist, I’m expected to produce an entire book before I approach an agent, much less a publishing house. I would have thought that if publishing houses were going to distrust anybody enough to want an agent to vouch for ‘em, it would be the author whose book they were buying at the idea stage.”

Don’t upset yourselves, oh novelists; it’s not good for your stomach acids, and besides, since everyone needs an agent now, it’s a moot point. But I suspect that the answer to your question is that that publishers habitually receive far more fiction submissions than nonfiction ones — interesting, given the long-standing industry truism that fiction is easier to sell, both to editors and to readers. (It probably also has something to do with the fact that nonfiction books are often proposed by those with clip-worthy previous publishing credentials, such as magazine articles and newspaper columns, but believe me, the other reason would be more than sufficient.)

Before petty bickering begins to break out between fiction and nonfiction writers over a situation that has more or less vanished anyway, let’s turn our attention to a more absorbing topic: why would the big publishing houses feel so strongly about agents that they would all agree upon a represented-manuscripts-only policy?

The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as at best a necessary evil, agents perform an exceedingly important role in the current publishing market: not only do they bring brilliant new writers and amazing new books to editors’ attention, but they are now also effectively the first-round submission screeners for the publishing houses.

Okay, so they bring some not-so-hot writers and less-than-amazing books to ‘em, too, but try to see the forest, not the trees here. By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.

Everybody understand that? Agents reject 95% of the queries they receive, and an even higher percentage of submitted manuscripts, so the publishers don’t have to do so.

It’s easy to resent agents for this, to think of them as the self-appointed gatekeepers of American literature, but that’s not really fair. Much of what they assure that the editors never see honestly isn’t publishable, after all; I hate to disillusion anyone (and yet here I am doing it), but as Millicent the agency screener would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is simply not very well written. Even very promisingly-written submissions are often misformatted, or would require major editing, or just plain are not quite up to professional standards.

Or so runs the prevailing wisdom; we could debate for weeks over the extent to which that’s really true, or how difficult it often is for genuinely innovative writing to land an agent. Suffice it to say that if the major publishers believed that agents were rejecting manuscripts that their editors should be seeing, they presumably would change their policies about accepting only agented manuscripts, right?

“Okay, Anne,” I hear some of you reluctantly conceding, “I get that if I hope to sell my book to a major U.S. publisher, I’m going to need to find myself an agent. But if you don’t mind my asking, what do I get out of the exchange, other than a possible entrée to an editorial desk?”

A good agent can do quite a bit for a writer. First, as you reluctant conceders already pointed out, an agent can make sure your manuscript or book proposal lands on the right desks: not just any old editor’s, but an editor with a successful track record in acquiring books like yours and shepherding them through the sometimes difficult publication process. (Don’t worry; I’ll be clarifying that part later in this series.) Pulling that off requires both an intimate knowledge of who is looking to buy what right now — not always an easy task, considering how quickly publishing fads change and editorial staffs turn over — but also the connections to enable a successful pitch to the right audience.

In other words, for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly; he must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.

Agents also negotiate book contracts for their clients, act as a liaison between the author and the publishing house, and help mediate any disputes that might arise. Like, for instance, if the publishing house is being a mite slow in coughing up the contracted advance.

Yes, it happens, I’m sorry to report. And if it happens to you, you’re going to want an experienced agent on your side, fighting for your dosh.

Admittedly, it will be very much in your agent’s self-interest to make sure that you’re paid: in the U.S., reputable agents earn their livings solely from commissions (usually 15%) on their clients’ work. That means, of course, that if they don’t sell books, the agency doesn’t make any money.

Allow me to repeat that, because: agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Contrary to common belief amongst aspiring writers, their employees are not primarily concerned with the task of discovering great new talent, but rather with finding books they believe the agency can sell within the current literary market.

In other words, they reject books they know to be written well. Routinely. Because if they can’t sell the book, the agency does not make money.

It’s honestly as simple as that. See why knowing how agencies work might help you take a rejection less personally?

Typically, the agent will handle all of the money an author makes on her book: the publisher pays advances and royalties to the agency, not directly to the author; the agency will then deduct the agent’s percentage, cut a check for the rest, and send it to the author. In the U.S., agencies are also responsible for providing their clients and the IRS with tax information and documentation.

Since self-employed people like writers have been known to get audited from time to time, you’re going to appreciate this level of verifiability once you become successful. Trust me on this one.

To recap how things have changed since Theodore Roosevelt roamed the earth:
Way back when: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at major publishing houses directly to market their books.
The reality now: with few exceptions, a writer will require an agent to approach a publisher for her.

Way back when: fiction and nonfiction books were marketed in the same manner, as already-completed manuscripts.
The reality now: fiction is sold on the entire manuscript; with certain exceptions, nonfiction is sold as via a book proposal.

Way back when: nonfiction writers could approach major publishing houses directly with their book proposals.
The reality now: agents submit both fiction and nonfiction books on behalf of their authors.

Way back when: agents played a substantially smaller role in the overall dynamic of U.S. publishing.
The reality now: agents largely determine which manuscripts editors will and will not see.

Way back when: an author often formed a personal relationship with his editor and other publishing house staff, sometimes lasting decades.
The reality now: the editor who acquires a book may not still be the editor handling it by the time it goes to press; a good agent can do a lot to help smooth over any resulting difficulties.

Whew — that’s quite a lot of information to absorb in a single post, isn’t it? I’m going to stop for the day, to give all of this time to sink in. Next time, on to what happens to a book after an agent submits it to an editor at a publishing house!

Yes, yes, I know: this isn’t precisely fun material to cover, but you will be happier in the long run if you’re familiar with it.

But wait — I haven’t given you a self-editing tip yet today, have I? Here’s one that will keep many of you busy for a good, long while: in most adult fiction, professional readers like Millicent prefer to see tag lines — all of those he said, she exclaimed, they cried statements that litter the average dialogue scene — minimized, or even omitted entirely. Unless there is serious doubt about which character is speaking when, they usually aren’t necessary.

Quotation marks, after all, indicate that what falls within them is being spoken aloud. So dialogue that runs like this:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah?” he said. “Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed in fear, but she stood her ground. “I am,” she said stoutly.

“Ooh,” Johnny said, “this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

may often be trimmed to the following, with no real loss of meaning:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah? Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed, but she stood her ground stoutly. “I am.”

“Ooh, this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most graceful way to work today’s editing tip into the text. Hey, I’m just warming up here. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part VI: a picture is allegedly worth a thousand words, but in a bio, you seldom get to use that many

All throughout the weekend (hey, even bloggers occasionally like a day off), I could have sworn I heard the muffled cries of my readers from afar, small as the mews of freshly-born kittens. “But Anne,” these wee voices called after me, “you didn’t tell us how to format an author bio…and you ALWAYS tell us how to format things…”

At least, I think that’s what they were saying; it’s also possible that they were merely reading a particularly bad translation of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince very, very slowly. Wafting ghostly voices are notoriously inarticulate.

Assuming that my first interpretation was indeed correct, let’s talk format.

In a novel submission, the author bio should be placed at the end of the pages you’re submitting, regardless of whether you have been asked to send a full or a partial manuscript. It should always be in the same typeface and font as the rest of the manuscript or book proposal — no exceptions. (And if you’re unfamiliar with the typefaces the publishing industry tends to prefer, or even that such preferences exist, you might want to consider consulting the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right with all deliberate speed.)

The bio is always the last page in a submission or query packet, coming at the bottom of the stack; it should neither be numbered nor include a slug line. It’s also typically the last page of a book proposal (although clippings sometimes follow it), but in that context, it should have a slug line and be numbered.

Everyone clear on that? No? Well, you’ll find some concrete examples below.

Beyond those limitations, there are two standard formats for an author bio. The first is very straightforward: a single page, double-spaced, in standard manuscript format. (If that last term was a mystery to you, I can only reiterate my suggestion that you visit the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right. Improperly-formatted manuscripts are far, far more likely to be rejected than ones that look professional.)

The author’s name should be centered on the top of the page, resulting in a document that looks little something like this:

Some would argue (including me, if memory serves, in a post from several years ago) that the text should be additionally decorated by either the first line of the page or the first line under the author’s name reading, “Author bio.” Not a startlingly original title, it’s true, but you must admit that it’s descriptive.

I no longer advise embracing this tactic, for the simple reason that a significant and apparently growing segment of the agent population now seems to prefer that their clients dispense with this little piece of self-evident labeling. Or so I surmise, from all of the agented writers I keep meeting whose agents have asked them to skip it. Most bio-writers are only too glad to omit it, as it permits an extra line of text in what is, let’s face it, a rather brief space into which to cram one’s charms.

Personally, I use the other type of bio format, the kind that includes a photo: half a page, single-spaced, with a 4×6 photograph (or a roughly similar size; perfection doesn’t matter here) centered 1 inch from the top of the page, above the text. In between the photo and the text, the author’s name appears, also centered.

The end result looks a little something like this:

Admittedly, the LP’s picture is a trifle larger in this example than I would advise using — ideally, the photo should take up only the top third of the page, and here, LP has opted to allow the visuals to extend considerably lower, as some less animated authors also choose to do. It’s a legitimate choice, certainly, but anybody out there notice the down side?

If you said, “By gum, that looks a whole lot like 157 words, rather than the 250 or so I was hoping to include on my bio,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Heck, give yourself two; they’re small.

Want to see one that’s roughly the same length as Aunt Jane’s example above? While we’re at it, let’s assume that it’s the last page of a book proposal, so you may see the requisite slug line in action:

Ste. Cecile author bio

A pretty great photo for establishing Cecile’s credibility to tell her particular story, isn’t it? Not a whole lot of doubt that we’ve got a virgin martyr here. Yet this picture suffers from a rather serious problem that the Little Prince’s didn’t — any guesses?

If you said that you couldn’t make out Cecile’s face well enough to pick her out of a crowd — or, more to the point, up at the airport to get her to her book signing on time — award yourself a medal. The author is easily recognizable in a good author photo, so avoid shots from thirty feet away. Cecile would be much better off with this bio, even at the expense of a little textual rearrangement to make it fit;

Ste. Cecile author bio2

The different photo shape is fine here — what’s important in this context is that the picture is recognizably Cecile. Why? Not only will this help her future agent pick her out of a police line-up recognize her when they meet at writers’ conferences, but Cecile’s future publishers are going to want to see what she looks like; photogenic authors are only slightly more common than telegenic ones.

So how do you slap that image onto your bio? The same way I did to produce these examples — and the only way, if you intend to e-mail your bio without first running the hard copy through a scanner. Get a friend with a digital camera take a picture that you like, save it to your hard disk, then use copy and paste the image into your author bio document.

If this sounds like far, far too close an intimacy with technology for you, take the photo to a copy center and ask the nice folks behind the counter to arrange a color copy so that the picture and the text are on the same page, so you may pop it into your query or submission packet. For a small fee, they will probably be delighted to produce a stack of snail mail-able hard copies for you.

I can tell you from experience, though: do NOT wait until you need an author photo to have your picture taken. Many, many aspiring writers hold off, assuming (usually wrongly) that their future publishing houses will take care of — and pay for — this detail for them.

These well-meaning souls almost invariably end up unhappy with the author photos on their respective dust jackets. Or with snapshots taken from thirty feet away. In any case, the results seldom make anyone concerned, even the author, squeal with delight.

Why, the camera-shy gasp? Well, it often takes many tries to obtain a photograph that you like enough to want to see mass-produced — or one that will look good in the school photo-size viable for most book jackets. It’s a bit easier now than it was prior to digital photography, of course; now, even an amateur can afford to take 500 snapshots in an endeavor to find the perfect pose.

Yet when dear self is making the decision — and when a poor choice is going to haunt one for the rest of one’s literary life, smirking back at one from jackets, websites, the publishers’ catalogue, and, if you’re lucky, next to you at a packed signing in a major bookstore — believe me, dear self is going to want some time to equivocate.

Seriously, published authors wrestle with this one all the time.

That’s one reason that you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings, incidentally; established authors’ photos are often a decade or more out of date. It’s not merely out of vanity, in order to appear more youthful to their readers (although I could name some names here), but because the photo-selecting process can be tedious and expensive.

Another excellent reason not to leave the construction of your author bio to the last minute, eh?

I’ve been sensing some tentative hand-raising for several paragraphs now. “Um, Anne,” some of you pipe up, “could you explain a bit more about why the reasoning about the publisher’s taking care of the photo is wrong? I always thought they just kept a bunch of professional photographers on staff to handle this sort of thing.”

Um, no. Posed, professional studio-taken photographs used to be more common on book jackets than they are today, but those photos were not in-house. At best, a publisher in the bad old days might cough up the dosh to have a pro snap some pictures, which made perfect sense: since this photo is usually also reproduced in the publisher’s catalogue, too, they were the clear beneficiaries.

But in recent years, that practice has become rare, especially for first-time authors. So guess who usually ends up paying for the professional photos you DO see?

Uh-huh.

I speak with aspiring writers all the time who are shocked — shocked! — to learn that the author is responsible for obtaining the photograph that graces the dust jacket. Now, the author’s photo is often posted on his website as well, but chances are that that the publisher is still not going to pay anyone to take a picture of you until you are very well established indeed.

Yes, you’re right: this is yet another expense that the publishing world has shifted onto writers. Sorry. But if you get your talented friends snapping now, you might just end up with a stellar photo you love at a fraction of the cost of a professional shoot by the time you need it.

I just mention.

All of this, of course, begs the question: even that it can be expensive in terms of both time and money to come up with a photo to accompany your author bio, is it really worth your while to use format #2?

As is so often the case with strategic decisions, be they literary, military, or just plain office politics, the answer is: it depends.

If you happen to be outstandingly attractive, yes, it is pretty much always going to be worth your while, and not just because Millicent is shallow. (She isn’t, typically.) These days, the marketing departments at publishing houses actually do want to know if an author is photogenic — and telegenic — if a book is expected to be a big seller.

If you tend to find potential agents and editors by accosting them at conferences and/or classes, it is worth your while to shell out for the small additional expense of producing an author bio with a photo of you on it to stuff into your post-conference submission packets. The reason for this is simple: it makes it easier for agents and editors to remember having spoken to you.

Not in a “My, but that’s an attractive writer!” sort of way, but in a “Hey, I have a distinct recollection of having had a rather pleasant conversation a month ago with that person” manner.

PLEASE do not take the fact that a nudge to the memory is sometimes necessary as a reflection upon either your book’s market chances, the quality of your writing, or your inherent memorability as a human being. As I mentioned earlier in this series, the average agent speaks to somewhere between 50 and 200 eager writers at a conference. The chances of his remembering your name in retrospect are rather low, even if you and your book are genuinely scintillating.

This can be true, perversely, even if the agent in question appeared to be foaming at the mouth with greed when you pitched your project. Post-pitch enthusiasm has a nasty habit of fading on the way back to NYC; it must have something to do with the coffee served on the flight back.

Again, sorry. Let’s get back to practicalities.

It is less important to look pretty in your author photo than to look interesting, generally speaking — and here, the standard posed, gently-smiling-under-indirect-light professional shot may actually work against you. So unless your book’s subject matter is very serious indeed, try not to make your bio picture look like a standard, posed publicity shot.

Why? For the same reason that when you flip back through your yearbook, half of the senior pictures seem more or less interchangeable: just looking nice tends not to be memorable.

You may laugh, but it is amazing how many author photos look like senior class pictures, devoid of personality. Try to not to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Write a Book.

But unless you are writing something pretty sizzling, you might not want to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Grace a Street Corner, either, if you catch my drift. Glamour shots became kind of popular in the mid-1990s, especially for female authors, but at this point, lenses that seem to have been bedewed with Vaseline make a picture seem dated.

And yes, Virginia, you SHOULD worry about what your author photo says about you — and not just because you don’t want your dear old white-headed mother to pick up your novel years from now in Barnes & Noble, clutch her chest, and keel over, crying over your boudoir shot, “I can’t believe my baby let someone PHOTOGRAPH her like that!”

The author photo is another opportunity to express your personality — which, lest we forget, is part of what you are selling when you pitch a book, like it or not, especially if you are marketing a memoir.

Here’s a radical idea, evidently endorsed by Saint Cecile: why not strive to make the tone of the picture match the tone of the book, or have the environment echo the subject matter? You might want to surround yourself with objects associated with your book’s topic for the photo, but avoid making the picture too busy. You want the viewer to focus on your charming face, after all.

One of the best author photos I ever saw was of an arson investigator. Far from being airbrushed and neat, his face was barely visible: he was covered in soot, crouched in front of the ashes of a burned-down building out of which he had apparently recently crawled. Did it make him look attractive? No, unless the observer happened to be turned on by smoke stains. Did I believe instantly and absolutely that he knew his subject upside-down and backwards? You bet.

I know that pulling this all together seems daunting, but trust me, the more successful you become, the more you will bless my name for urging you to put together a killer bio, with or without photo, in advance. Once you start getting published, even articles in relatively small venues or on websites, people in the industry will start asking for your author bio and photo.

At that point, when editors are clamoring to hear your — yes, YOUR — magical words, I can absolutely guarantee that the last thing you will want to be doing is sitting hunched over your keyboard, trying to summarize your entire life in 250 words.

Okay, not the very last thing: the very last thing you will want to be doing is scrambling through your bottom desk drawer, searching for a picture of yourself that would not make you cringe ten years hence.

Now that I’ve thoroughly terrified you, I shall sign off for the day. Next time, I shall tie up a few last loose ends regarding author bios, author photos, and their production. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part II: the impossible will take a little while

billie-holiday bluebillie-holiday blue

As will this series of series on < a href=”http://www.annemini.com/?p=6634″>what goes into a query or submission packet, apparently. As those of you who read your way through yesterday’s long-but-I-hope-entertainingly-persuasive post already know, the necessity of writing an author bio is often sprung upon an aspiring writer. Not in a delightful, hands-over-the-eyes way, but in brusque, business-like manner: “You’ll have it to me in the morning, right?” requesting agents and editors are prone to say. “Or you can just e-mail it to me right now, if you like.”

Some writers never get the resulting lump out of their throats again.

Those of us who have been at the writing game for a while have learned not to voice dismay at this kind of request. Surviving in the ultra-competitive literary environment is just easier for be an upbeat, can-do kind of writer, the sort who says, “Rewrite WAR AND PEACE by Saturday? No problem!” than the kind who moans and groans over each unreasonable deadline. Or reasonable one, for that matter.

Hey, the energy that you expend in complaining about an outrageous request could be put to good use in trying to meet that deadline. As the late great Billie Holiday so often sang – and all of you blues lovers out there should feel free to join in:

The difficult
I’ll do right now.
The impossible
will take a little while.

Will it vitiate my moral too much if I add that the name of the song was “Crazy, He Calls Me”? (Clearly, Billie must have spent a lot of time hanging out with my agent.) Which reminds me: if memory serves, I also spent yesterday encouraging you to put together an author bio for yourself as soon as possible, against the day that you might need to produce one, immediately and apparently effortlessly, in response to a request from an agent or editor.

And a good two-thirds of you groaned audibly.

I know, I know: we writers are expected to produce a LOT on spec; it would be nice, especially for a fiction writer, to be able to wait to write SOMETHING affiliated with one’s first book after an advance was already cooling its little green heels in one’s bank account.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but when that happy day comes, you may not have the time. At that point, you’ll be asked to write more for your publisher’s marketing department, a whole lot more –heck, if you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll be asked write the rest of the book you proposed — so you’ll be ecstatic to have even one task already checked off the list.

In other words: get the bio out of the way now.

Even if juggling the demands of your publishers’ many departments seems impossibly far away to you, think of bio-writing as another tool added to your writer’s toolkit. Not only the bio itself, although it’s certainly delightful to have one on hand when the time comes, but the highly specialized skills involved in writing one.

I’m deadly serious about this — just knowing in your heart that you already have the skills to write this kind of professional document can be marvelously comforting. Every time I have a tight deadline, I am deeply, passionately grateful that I have enough experience with the trade to be able crank out the requisite marketing materials with the speed of a high school junior BSing on her English Literature midterm. It’s definitely a learned skill, acquired through having produced a whole lot of promotional materials for my work (and my clients’, but SHHH about that) over the last decade or so.

Frankly, at this point, I can make it sound as if all of human history had been leading exclusively and inevitably to my acquiring the knowledge, background, and research materials for me to write the project in question. ANY project. The Code of Hammurabi, you will be pleased to know, was written partially with my book in mind.

Which book, you ask, since I have several in progress? Which one would you like to acquire for your publishing house, Mr. or Ms. Editor?

Another reason to start penning the thing well in advance of when you need it (and you WILL need it, if your writing career is at all successful) is that it will give you time to experiment with how you would like to present yourself to the literary world — and to your future fans. And I’m not merely talking about the many, many tries it takes most of us to come up with an author photo we like enough to want to see on a dust jacket.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while are probably not be astonished to hear that your author bio, like any other promotional material for a book, is a writing sample. The bio is also a creative writing opportunity. Not an invitation to lie, of course, but a chance to show what a fine storyteller you are.

This is true in spades for nonfiction book proposals, by the way, where the proposer is expected to use her writing skills to paint a picture of what does not yet exist, in order to call it into being. Contrary to popular opinion (including, I was surprised to learn recently, my agent’s — I seem to be talking about him a lot today, don’t I? — but I may have misunderstood him), the formula for a NF proposal is not

good idea + platform = marketable proposal

regardless of the quality of the writing, or even the ever-popular recipe

Take one (1) good idea and combine with platform; stir until well blended. Add one talented writer (interchangeable; you can pick ‘em up cheaply anywhere) and stir.

Just as which justice authors a Supreme Court decision affects how a ruling is passed down to posterity, the authorship of a good book proposal matters. Or should, because unlike novels, which are marketed only when already written (unless it’s part of a multi-book deal), NF books exist only in the mind of the author until they are written. That’s why it’s called a proposal, and that’s why it includes an annotated table of contents: it is giving a picture of the book that already exists in the author’s mind.

For those of you who don’t already know, book proposals — the good ones, anyway — are written as if the book being proposed were already written; synopses, even for novels, are written in the present tense. It is your time to depict the book you want to write as you envision it in your fondest dreams.

Since what the senior President Bush used to call “the vision thing” is thus awfully important to any book, particularly a NF one, the author bio that introduces the writer to the agents and editors who might buy the book is equally important. It’s the stand-in for the face-to-face interview for the job you would like a publisher to hire you to do: write a book for them.

The less of your writing they have in front of them when they are making that hiring decision — which, again, is usually an entire book in the case of a novel, but only a proposal and a sample chapter for nonfiction, even for memoir — the more they have to rely upon each and every sentence that’s there, obviously. Do you really want the words that describe your background to be ones that you wrote in 45 minutes in the dead of night so you could get your submission into the mail before you had to be at work in the morning?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you don’t.

Are you chomping at the bit to get at your own author bio yet? Good. Then you are in the perfect mindset for your homework assignment: start thinking about all of the reasons you — yes, you — are far more interesting than anyone else on the planet.

I’m not talking about boasting, mind you; I’m talking about uniqueness. What makes you different from anyone else who might have written the book you are trying to sell?

Don’t worry for the moment about how, or even whether, these things have any direct connection to the subject matter of the book you’re writing or don’t sound like very impressive credentials. Just get ready to tell me — and the world! — how precisely you are different from everybody else currently scurrying across the face of the planet.

Don’t tell me that you’re not. I shan’t believe it.

Why? Because I know, as surely as if I could stand next to God and take an in-depth reading of each and every one of your psyches, that there is no one out there more truly interesting than someone who has devoted her or his life to the pursuit of self-expression. I’ve met writers I didn’t like, certainly, but I’ve never met a genuinely boring one.

Okay, so maybe I need to get out more. I spend an awful lot of time at my keyboard, expressing myself.

But I digress. And I’m about to do it some more, so bear with me here. Feel free to keep brainstorming about your qualifications as I continue. I have a couple of thoughts I’d like to share with you before any of you tell me that you don’t have any writing credentials worth including in your author bio.

How did I know that some of you were thinking that already? Read on, MacDuff.

As long-time Author! Author! devotées are no doubt already aware, I have mixed feelings about the utility of much of the traditional old chestnuts. I often advise all of you dear folks to take the usual old writing truisms with a massive grain of salt? Write what you know, for instance, has been radically over-used, and not always to good effect. All too often, it’s been used as a battering ram to deprecate the genuinely original and exciting work of science fiction and fantasy writers, for instance. “Stop being all imaginative,” WWYK-mongers have historically snarled at those who have eschewed slice-of-life storylines. “Stick to what actually happened; it won’t be plausible otherwise.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone uses imaginative as an insult? In some genres, it’s one of the highest compliments a writer can get on her work.

As a freelance editor, I see a heck of a lot of manuscripts in any given year, and I hate to tell you this, WWYK-huggers, but being lifted from real life most emphatically does NOT render something plausible on the page. Or even enjoyable. And who said that holding the mirror, as ’twere, up to nature was the only way to produce good writing, anyway?

Well, perhaps most famously, the renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, for one. I imagine that many of you who have spent much time in writing classes have already been bored by the oft-repeated story of how Perkins browbeat poor Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings into abandoning her first love — historical romance, if memory serves — to delve deep into real life and produce THE YEARLING, so I’ll spare you.

And yes, I’ll grant you, THE YEARLING is a very good book; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and I’m quite fond of it. Rawlings was an exceptionally talented writer, by virtually everyone’s admission.

So why is it that one NEVER hears this particular write-what-you-know story told as though Rawlings were a talented enough writer to genre-jump, or as evidence that even the greatest editors harbor personal tastes that may or may not have anything to do with the actual demands of the marketplace? Literally every time I have ever heard a writing teacher share this anecdote, it’s always been told with sense a smug satisfaction that Rawlings hadn’t managed to gain literary recognition until she stopped fighting her editor.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to rewrite history so THE YEARLING was never written. But aren’t you just a bit curious about what might have happened if Rawlings had bumped into a publisher who actually liked historical romance?

Instead of one who rolled his eyes over her manuscripts and sighed, “”Stop being so imaginative, Marjorie.”

Why do I bring this up today, other than because the overuse of write what you know is, as you may perhaps have noticed, a pet peeve of mine? Because the author bio is one instance where Perkins’ advice to Rawlings is indeed quite applicable: in an author bio, you should absolutely write what you know — and only what you know — rather than trying to inflate your background into something it is not.

Didn’t see that conclusion coming after all that build-up, did you?

Before I get too carried away on the vital importance of sticking to the truth in your bio, let’s define what we’re talking about for those of you joining us in mid-series: an author bio is an entertaining overview of the author’s background, an approximately 200-250 word description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational attainments, designed to make you sound like a person whose work would be fascinating to read.

Go back and re-read that last bit, because it will prevent your making the single biggest mistake to which first time bio-writers fall prey. If your bio does not make you sound interesting, it is not a success. Period.

Aren’t you glad that I asked you to come up with a list of all the ways that you are fascinating before I mentioned that last little tidbit? I thought it might make you feel better at this juncture.

While you are going to want to hit many of the points you brainstormed earlier in this series (if you don’t have a list of your book’s selling points handy, please see the category at right that I have named, with startling originality, YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS), you will also want to include some of your quirks and background oddities, especially if they are relevant to the book.

I can hear the wheels of your brains turning, reeling at the possibilities. While they do, let me get the logistics out of the way:

(1) Use the third person, not the first.

(2) Start with whatever fact on your fascination list is most relevant to the book at hand, not with “The author was born…”

(3) Mention any past publications (in general terms), columns, lecturing experience, readings, as well as what you were doing for a living at the time that you wrote the book.

(4) Also toss in any and all educational background (relevant to the book’s subject matter or not), as well as any awards you may have won (ditto). But naturally, if your last book won the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, this would be the place to mention it. (I’m looking at you, Marjorie.)

(5) If the most interesting thing about you is not even remotely relevant to the book, consider mentioning it anyway. You want to be memorable, don’t you?

(6) Bios are virtually always single-page documents. Don’t make it longer unless an agent, editor, or contest guidelines ask you to do so.

#6, at least, should sound bit familiar. In case it doesn’t (and so I don’t get an avalanche of comments from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), what we’re talking about here is 2-3 paragraphs, a 1/3 — 1/2 page (single-spaced) or 2/3 — 1 full page (double-spaced) in 12-pt. type, Times, Times New Roman or Courier, with 1-inch margins.

(If that last sentence read like Urdu to you or just seemed like micro-managing, PLEASE hie you hence to the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right with all possible speed. Trust me, your work will be much, much better received if it conforms to the norms of the biz.)

I sense some restlessness out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some conscientious rule-followers murmur, “haven’t you misspoken here? I could have sworn that you just said that the bio could be single-spaced — but that’s absurd, because you’re always telling us that everything that passes under professional eyes MUST be double-spaced with standard margins.”

Well-caught, rule-followers: this is indeed an exception to the general rule. Stand back, and I’ll shout it: unlike positively everything else you will ever produce for passing under an agent or editor’s beady eyes, it is sometimes acceptable to single-space an author bio.

Generally speaking, though, bios are only single-spaced when the author bio page contains a photograph of the author, and…wait, did I just feel the photo-shy amongst you just seize up? Don’t worry; it’s optional at this stage, and I shall talk about this contingency later in this series.

Like pretty much everything else in a query or submission packet, the tone and parameters of what is and isn’t acceptable content vary by book category. So before you launch into writing your own bio, you might want to slouch your way into a bookstore on your day off and start pulling books of the shelves in the area where you hope one day to see your book sitting. Many of my clients find this helpful, as it assists them in remembering that the author bio is, like a jacket blurb, a sales tool, not just a straightforward list of facts.

Don’t just look at books in general; be category-specific. Find books like yours. If you write tragic romances, read a few dozen bio blurbs in tragic novels already on the market. If you write cyberpunk, see what those authors are saying about themselves, and so forth. Is there a pattern?

In good bios, there tends to be: the tone of the author bio echoes the tone of the book. This is a clever move, as it helps the potential book buyer (and, in the author bio, the potential agent and/or editor) assess whether this is a writer in whose company she wants to spend hours of her life.

For two FABULOUS examples of such matching, check out ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER author Bob Tarte’s bio, as well as Author! Author! guest blogger and comic genius Jonathan Selwood’s. Both of these writers do an AMAZING job of not only giving a genuine taste of the (wildly different) senses of humor inherent to their books, but making themselves sound like no one else on the face of the earth.

Yet if you read their bios closely, apparently, the Code of Hammurabi itself was written as a precursor to their bringing their respective works to the reading world. Now that’s a great author bio.

Why? Because it’s a terrific way to establish a credible platform without hitting the reader over the head with one’s credentials — yet, true to the bio-writing author’s brief, it presents the author as he actually is: interesting.

REALLY interesting.

Don’t believe me? Think a stodgy list of credentials might have done it better? Take another gander at Bob Tarte’s. His animal-related background is genuinely impressive and might well look good just listed, but doesn’t this:

Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell…Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, rabbits, doves, cats, hens, and one turkey.

make you more likely to pick up his books than a simple, straightforward list of credentials?

Clever authors often tailor their bios to the book being promoted — because, let’s face it, the personality traits and background that might help a writer push a dead-serious political book would probably not be all that useful if the same writer was trying to sell chick lit. Fortunately, most of us creative types are pretty darned complex people; few writers have so few quirks in their backgrounds that they cannot afford to pick and choose the bits most appropriate to the book being promoted.

Are you not believing me AGAIN? Okay, you asked for it — here’s the opening to the bio Jonathan Selwood posted on his website to promote his serious comic novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, a story of pop art, dinosaur bone theft, and partying with billionaires punctuated by a massive earthquake, LA style:

I was born in Hollywood, California. In other words, the first time I played doctor as a kid was on a neighbor’s circular fur-covered waterbed with a mirror on the ceiling. The girl’s parents and two younger siblings were busy out by the pool hosting a nude cocaine party.

Not a traditional author bio, admittedly — but do you believe that Mssr. Selwood might have just a bit of insight into the partying habits of that part of the world? Absolutely.

And that’s one of the reasons that I really like these two authors’ bios: they have not — and this is unusual for an author bio — leaned on their formal credentials too heavily. In fact, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere, after all) that one of these gentlemen holds an MFA from a rather prestigious writing program, but you’d never know it from his bio.

And no, I’m not going to tell you which it is.

Why might he have left it off? Well, this is just a hunch on my part — my spies may be everywhere, but they’re not mind-readers — but I would imagine it’s because he’s a savvy marketer: mentions of Ivy League MFAs generally conjure heavily introspective books of exquisitely-crafted literary short stories about tiny, tiny slices of life in the suburban world. (Such exquisite little gems are known in the biz as “MFA stories,” a term that is often spoken with a slight, Elvis-like curl of the lip. Since they tend not to sell very well, they have as many detractors in the industry as enthusiasts.)

In short, I would imagine that he left off that genuinely impressive credential so he wouldn’t send the wrong single about the book he is trying to sell NOW. Because an author bio is, ultimately, not a cold, impersonal Who’s Who blurb, designed merely to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, but a piece of marketing material. If it doesn’t help sell the book, it’s just book flap decoration.

Happy bio hunting, folks: ferret out some good ones. If you find any that strike you as especially effective/unusual/genre-appropriate, drop a line in the comments about them — examples are always helpful, and I’m never averse to helping good authors attract a little attention to their books. (Fair warning, though: I will be double-checking all of them to make sure they’re legit.)

Next time, I shall talk a bit about what makes a less-effective bio less effective, and then delve further into the mechanics of constructing your own. Because like so many other things worth doing, writing a good author bio isn’t something that should be done at the very last minute — or the very last hour.

Like the impossible, it will take a little while. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part VIII: truth in advertising

parrot sketch

It’s got to be a quick one today, I’m afraid, campers: as some of you may have suspected when I didn’t turn up here yesterday, the monster deadline I mentioned last week has devoured me whole. While I’m busy crawling out of its gullet, though, I didn’t want you to think I had forgotten you.

Last time, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent in even her worst moods that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are summarizing. While that is a pretty good idea, it occurred to me in the dead of night that before I proceed with more synopsis-writing advice, I might want to warn you about tumbling into the rather common opposite trap.

I refer, of course, to synopses that sound not just like back jacket blurbs for the book, all premise and puff, without a serious overview of the plot, but like the speech the MC makes before handing the author his or her Lifetime Achievement Award: not only is this book’s author brilliant, talented, and the best person in the universe to write this book, but a great humanitarian and my close personal friend as well.

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it. Or if you happen to be old enough to remember the alcohol-soaked roasts where compères used to utter such platitudes.

If you are writing a synopsis for a novel, PLEASE avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an essay on why you chose to write the book (“Wrenched from the depths of my soul after seventeen years of therapy…”). Neither tends to work well, both because neither is really about the book — and, let’s face it, praise is more credible coming from someone other than the person being praised, isn’t it?

And if you doubt the latter, flip over pretty much any book published in North America within the last twenty years and take a gander at the blurbs from famous people. Don’t they ring truer coming from pens OTHER than the author’s?

Yet both the relayed second-hand compliment and the diatribe about the author’s personal motivation for writing the book are rather common inclusions in synopses. How common, you ask? Well, if I had a dime for every novel synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… I would own my own miniscule island in the Caribbean.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d fly the remaining members of Monty Python to that Caribbean and have them do the parrot sketch live for my friends. Or maybe just listen to Eric Idle talk for several hours straight. (One pretty good indication that a 4th-grader is going to grow up to write comedy: she has a crush on the guy in Monty Python who did his writing solo, rather than with a partner. Swoon!)

And if I had a dime for every time seen it in a query letter, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies more writer-friendly. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow. More’s the pity.

My point is, hyperbolic self-review is almost as common as…well, I was going to say as common as aspiring writers who claim, “My book is a natural for Oprah!” but that’s hyperbolic self-review, isn’t it?

The frequency with which synopsizers attempt these approaches is precisely why these techniques are so often turn-offs for our pal Millicent the agency screener — or her Aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week, commonalities can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, they can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

Trust me, however true any second-hand praise above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot comment upon the blurb above’s veracity — or how difficult it was for an author to write a book, both forms of self-compliment come across as clichès.

Besides, a good fiction synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one hell of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, as I mentioned yesterday, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it or boasting about how generally necessary this book is to the betterment of humanity.

Again, it may surprise you to hear, but a LOT of NF synopses go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. Given a choice, use the space to flesh out your argument with — chant it with me now, readers — INTRIGUING SPECIFICS.

There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate — and just so you have it in the back of your mind for future reference, here they are:

 

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform or the book’s marketability. If so, your agent may well advise you to add a section to the proposal entitled something like, “Why Tell This Story Now?”

 

(2) Within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews.

(3) When you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed. Then, talking about it until you’re blue in the face is an accepted part of the creative process.

(4) Immediately after Eric Idle asks you, “So what inspired to became a comic novelist?”

 

Other than those four situations, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people — at least those who work in the publishing industry — as the book itself. Nor should they be. At least if the book is any good.

Don’t believe me? Start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book. Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that eyes don’t glaze over at this point.

After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN come to me and talk about whether your synopsis should include a paragraph on why you wrote the book.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why an author wrote any book is not particularly important to the industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer.

Writers tend to do that, they’ve noticed. From that rather cold point of view, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional — or, at any rate, as a writer who might not really understand that readers can’t reasonably be expected to purchase a book simply because the writer went to the trouble of writing it.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true: as much as we writers love to talk about our creative process, on the business side of the industry, such discussion tends to be regarded as a sign of that species of self-involvement that can render an artist rather deaf to the demands of the marketplace.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this assumption, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book not because they think of themselves as Artistes Above Such Sordid Considerations as Marketability, but because they feel so isolated throughout the actual writing process. After years locked up with a book project, it can a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last?

It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. By all means, go with that impulse. But please, please take my word on this one: you should most emphatically not do it in your synopsis.

Or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. At least, not until after a contract is signed.

As usual, there are a couple of exceptions. Obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book?” you can and should give an honest answer, unless you happen to have beaten another writer over the head in the dead of night and stolen her work-in-progress. Or if someone stands up at a book reading and asks the same question — although as a rule, I would discourage planting your significant other or other crony in the audience to ask that particular question.

(Yes, I’ve seen it happen, and it’s invariably really obvious that it’s a set-up.)

Also — at the risk of repeating myself — if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter. And in your synopsis, if you are summarizing a nonfiction book. But in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis.

But I can feel already that some of you are not going to fight me on this point. So here is a bit of advice for those of you who are planning to, well, ignore my advice: if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned in the synopsis, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

On that logically convoluted note, I leave you for the day. Keep up the good work!

How to format a book manuscript properly, part XII: not all truths are self-evident, or, why a sensible writer should hang onto that massive grain of salt

signing-the-constitution

I’ve been making a Herculean effort not to gloat too much here at Author! Author! about being on a writing retreat in France — or at least to hold off on it until we’ve made it through this series on standard format so I can settle into a nice, luxurious series on how to apply for and what to expect from formal artists’ retreats. But I shall burst if I don’t chortle about just two things today — no, make it three.

First, this is my writing space:
la-muse-writing-room
I’m ALONE in that, incidentally. You can’t see the other fireplace or the wood stove, but I assure you that they’re there.

Second, this is the view from one of the four six-foot-high French windows in my writing space:
window-view
Third, when I asked the very kind proprietors if I might have another lamp in my writing space, they promptly installed what appears from here to be a early 20th century chandelier:
other-end-of-la-muse-writing-space
I’d been thinking something more along the lines of a $20 lamp from IKEA, but hey, I’ll live with it. I could throw an intimate dinner party in the armoire.

I’m just saying: La Muse is a very, very nice place to write. And yes, there are fellowships available — but you’ll be hearing more about all of this in the weeks to come.

Okay, the chortling is out of my system now, more or less. Back to business.

The last few times I have come to the end of an extended series on manuscript formatting — book manuscripts, that is; please be aware that short stories, magazine articles, theses, dissertations, and other types of writing are subject to other restrictions — I’ve ended with a rather peevish little discussion about why, in the face of so much conflicting information about submission requirements floating around these days, professional advice-givers like me don’t either:

(a) check out every other source out there to make sure that we’re all saying precisely the same thing (which would be so time-consuming that none of us would have time to give any further advice),

(b) take it upon ourselves to force every single individual who is empowered to pass judgment upon a manuscript within the confines of North America to agree upon a single (and preferably single-page) set of rules to which everyone without exception would adhere (which would require a convention so large that the framers of the U.S. Constitution would turn pale at the very thought), or

(c) shut up entirely and let those new to the biz try to figure out some genuinely counter-intuitive rules all by themselves.

I can’t speak for everyone currently giving advice on the subject, of course, but in my own case, the answer is really pretty straightforward: the norms I’ve been explaining throughout this series are in fact the ones I have used successfully myself for many, many years. Since neither I, any of my editing clients, or (as far as I know) any reader of this blog who has followed this advice to the letter has ever been asked by an agent or editor to make a single purely formatting change to his/her manuscript, I feel quite confident in continuing to give this particular set of advice.

But I will say something that one seldom hears advice-givers say: whether you choose to adhere to the rules of standard format I’ve set out here is ultimately up to you. But once you choose to follow a particular rule, you must obey it 100% of the time in your manuscript.

Let me repeat that, because it’s monumentally important: it’s not enough to adhere to a formatting rule most of the time; you must cleave to it in every single applicable instance in the text.

Why? You should know the words to the song by now: because inconsistency isn’t going to look professional to people who read manuscripts for a living.

I used to think that I didn’t actually need to state this requirement — after all, isn’t the part of the point of a rule that it should be followed on a regular basis, rather than just periodically? However, within the last year, I’ve seen enough manuscripts and contest entries (yes, I still judge from time to time) by good writers who sometimes use a single dash and sometimes a doubled one (if you’re not absolutely certain which is correct, I can only suggest that you return to the first post of this series and read through it again), or whose Chapters 1-3, 6, and 17 have a (ugh) single space after periods and colons, whereas Chs. 4, 5, and 10-12 have two, and the rest feature both…

Well, you get the picture. Apparently, the need for consistency is not as self-evident as I had previously believed.

I would point the finger at a few culprits for this astonishingly pervasive manuscript problem. First — and I’m quite positive that those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while have felt this one coming practically since the top of this post — the vast majority of aspiring writers simply do not reread their own work enough. I’m not talking about revision here (although most submissions could use more liberal helpings of that, frankly), but rather actually sitting down and scanning a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

What tips me off that very few writers actually do this before submitting their pages to an agent or a contest? Well, for starters, inconsistent formatting. And spelling errors. And repeated words. And scenes where characters do or say things that they’ve done or said half a page before.

You know, the kind of stuff that any reader would catch if s/he sat down with the actual pages and read them closely.

Often, such errors are not the result of compositional carelessness, but of repeated revision –the second culprit I’m dragging before the court in irons today. Zeroing in on the same page, paragraph, or even sentence over and over again without re-reading the entire section can easily result in what I like to call a Frankenstein manuscript, one that reads in hard copy as though it were cobbled together from the corpses of several drafts, sometimes ones written in different voices.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a secret of good writing: it flows smoothly. A sure narrative voice is a consistent one. That’s why writers brand-new to the writing game so often labor under the quite mistaken impression that their favorite books were their respective authors’ first drafts, and thus (one assumes) that their own first drafts should be marketable without further revision: because a the author of a well-crafted narrative works hard to create the illusion of spontaneous consistency.

Awfully hard. Seamlessness is no accident, you know.

So what do you think a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, or their aunt Mehitabel the veteran contest judge thinks when they encounter, say, one sentence that’s in the past tense, followed by three that are in the present? Or a character named George on page 8 and Jorge on page 127?

“Inconsistency,” they breathe in unison. “This manuscript needs more work.”

Or at least a good authorial read-through IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I’m going to be talking at greater length about the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon soon, you’ll no doubt be happy to hear. Since it’s such a natural follow-up to the standard format series, I may defer my discussion of writing retreats to attend to it first. I’ll have to give it some thought. (Don’t worry: either way, you’ll be seeing some nice pictures of France.)

The third culprit — and I have yet another excellent question from a reader to thank for reminding me to bring it to your attention — is the fact that sometimes presenting a manuscript professionally means breaking one of the standing rules.

Yes, you read that correctly. Among the many, many things that those new to submitting to agencies and publishing houses are magically expected to know is the one instance where using boldface is not only acceptable, but generally expected. No one will hurt you if you don’t use it, mind you, but your future agent may ask you to change your book proposal if you don’t.

I’m talking, in case you’re wondering, about section headings in book proposals. And sometimes in nonfiction manuscripts, but it really depends upon the agent or editor’s personal preference. Brace yourselves, because this logic is going to be a bit convoluted: boldface shouldn’t be used for emphasis, but it’s okay to use in a section heading in nonfiction; some agents actively prefer it, as did my memoir’s publisher.

But seriously, don’t use boldface anywhere else.

Confused? You’re not alone. Quoth curious reader Odin:

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.

I freely admit it: I’m always a bit nonplused when I get a question like this, one that cites as law a rule that just isn’t used in professional manuscripts. But since I do hear from readers who have stumbled across advice like this quite often, I shall pass along a tip for assessing its helpfulness: if the sources you’ve been consulting are telling you to mark skipped lines with # or *, you probably 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 * to mark a skipped line.)

It’s also — again, brace yourself, if you’ve been hobnobbing with old rule lists — not at all necessary in a current book manuscript to add any marker at all to indicate a skipped line in the text. Just hit the return key and call it good.

Before those of you who have fallen under the spell of short story and article rules start shouting, “But…but…” allow me to remind you that as we discussed earlier in this series, NOT EVERYTHING THAT FALLS UNDER THE RUBRIC OF WRITING SHOULD BE FORMATTED IDENTICALLY.

Have you happened to notice that amazingly few sources out there bother to tell aspiring writers that?

I suspect that it’s not entirely a coincidence, therefore, that so many aspiring writers assume that all writing should be formatted precisely the same way, regardless of where it will be submitted. That’s just not true — but without some fairly hefty cross-source research, how is someone new to the professional writing to know that?

Case in point: Odin’s dilemma. Pretty much any US-based agent would make her take the #s out of her manuscript, 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 are going to be willing to take.

So as you make your way through the bewildering forest of advice out there, toting your massive grain of salt, be aware of the fact that many seemingly authoritative sources out there disagree on certain points for the very simple reason that they’re talking about different things, although they often do not say so explicitly. Bear in mind that 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, the temptation to produce a short, one-size-fits-all list of rules is considerable.

That doesn’t mean you should disregard such lists entirely, of course. Just keep in mind that any list that purports to cover every type is necessarily going to run afoul of some established standard somewhere.

Just to make it perfectly clear: if anyone is looking for terse, bullet-pointed to-do lists for writers, I think any of my long-term readers can tell you that this blog is NOT the place to start. As the thousands of pages of archived posts here can attest, I am the queen of elaboration.

Lots and lots of elaboration.

Which is why Odin’s question so delighted me, I must say: in compiling my own quite specific list, I had overlooked the section heading exception. Yet another opportunity to elaborate and clarify!

So I am pleased to present the two options for what a section heading in a nonfiction book (or proposal) should look like — first, utilizing boldface:

wharton-section-break-example11

Quite straightforward, isn’t it? This format also — and this is important in a book proposal, as they are often read very quickly — renders skimming easy.

That being said, there are anti-boldface hard-liners who might object to this; they’re rare, but they exist. So here is an alternate, bold-free version:

wharton-section-break-example2

Again: simple, elegant, non-confrontational. And — again, important — it would be clear what is happening where, even to a rapidly-skimming eye.

I must confess, however, that I don’t like it as much as the first. Why? Pull out your hymnals, everyone: because it just doesn’t look right.

While I’m on the subject of unnecessary doohickeys writers are sometimes told to shoehorn into their book manuscripts and proposals, let’s talk about what should happen on the last page. For a BOOK manuscript, the proper way to end it is simply to end it.

No bells, no whistles, no # # #, no -86-. Just stop writing.

Even the ever-popular THE END is not needed. In fact, I know plenty of Millicents (and their bosses, and editors, and contest judges) who routinely giggle at the use of THE END to indicate that a manuscript is not, in fact, going to continue. “What is this writer thinking?” they ask one another, amused. “That I’m going to keep reading all of that blank space after the last paragraph, wondering where all of the ink went? That I’m incapable of understanding why there aren’t any more pages in the submission? Please!”

Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about professional critique being harsh? Don’t even get me started on professional ridicule.

Personally, I have sympathy for how confusing all of the various advice out there must be for those who have never seen a professional manuscript up close and personal — that is, as I have said many times, why I revisit this decidedly unsexy topic so often. But honestly, some of the rules that commenters have asked about over the last three years must be from sources that predate World War II, or perhaps the Boer War. I’ve been editing book manuscripts for most of my adult life (and proofing galleys since early junior high school), and I have to say, I’ve literally never seen a single one that ended with “-86-”

So truth compels me to admit that I can sort of see where Millicent might find it amusing to see in a submission.

But you can sort of see her point of view here, can’t you? To people who read book manuscripts for a living in the US, the very notion of there NOT being a consensus is downright odd: why, the evidence that there is a consensus is sitting right in front of them. The mailman brings stacks of it, every single day.

“Oh, come on — everyone doesn’t already know these rules?” Millicent asks, incredulous. “This information is widely available, isn’t it?”

That’s a QUOTE, people — but as someone who regularly works with folks on both sides of the submission aisle, I have come to believe that the wide availability of the information is actually part of the problem here. The rules governing book manuscripts haven’t changed all that much over the years, from an insider’s perspective, but from the POV of someone new to the game, the fact that they have changed at all, ever — coupled with these rules not being applicable to every conceivable type of professional writing — can look an awful lot like inconsistency.

And we all know how Millie, Maury, and Mehitabel feel about that, don’t we?

Which is why, in case you have been wondering, I always spend so much time and space here explaining the logic behind each rule I advise using. I’m just not a fan of the do-it-because-I-say-so school of teaching, and besides, I want the right way to sink into your bones, so it may save you time for the rest of your writing career.

If the flurry of rules starts to seem overwhelming, remind yourself that although submissions do indeed get rejected for very small reasons all the time, it’s virtually unheard-of for any manuscript to have only ONE problem. They seldom travel alone.

So I would caution any aspiring writer against assuming that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the ONLY reason a manuscript was getting rejected. Most of the time, it’s quite a few reasons working in tandem — which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for Millicent and her cohorts to come to believe that an obviously improperly-formatted manuscript is unlikely to be well-written. The notion that changing only ONE thing, even a major one, in the average manuscript would render it rejection-proof is not particularly easy for a professional reader to swallow.

There is no such thing as a rejection-proof manuscript, you know. While it would indeed be dandy if there were a magical formula that could be applied to any manuscript to render it pleasing to every Millicent out there, that formula simply doesn’t exist; individual tastes and market trends vary too much.

This is vital to understand about standard format: it’s not a magic wand that can be waved over a submission to make every agent, editor, and contest judge on the face of the earth squeal with delight at the very sight of it.

But it is a basic means of presenting your writing professionally, so your garden-variety Millicent will be able to weigh it on its non-technical merits. All I can claim for standard format — and this isn’t insignificant — is that adhering to it will make it less likely that your submission will be rejected on a knee-jerk basis.

However, I’m not going to lie to you: even a perfectly-formatted manuscript is going to garner its share of rejections, if it’s sent out enough. Why? Because every agent out there, just like every editor, harbors quirky, individuated ideas about how the perfect book should be written.

Sorry. If I ran the universe…well, you know the rest.

Whatever set of rules you decide to embrace, though, make it YOUR decision — and stick to it. Don’t leap to make every change you hear rumored to be an agent’s pet peeve unless you are relatively certain in your heart of hearts that implementing it will make your manuscript a better book.

Yes, even if the suggestion in question came from yours truly. It’s your manuscript, not mine.

Keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway?

printing-press-woodcut

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a nice, long time are no doubt already aware, many of my best ideas for blog posts come from readers’ comments and questions. Frequently, readers will frame questions that, if I’m honest about it, just wouldn’t occur to those of us who deal with manuscripts professionally to pose. For instance, why a manuscript should feature indented paragraphs (the answer is yes, in case any of you were wondering) or whether it’s permissible to have the slug line in the header and the page number in the footer (the answer is no) are just not questions that would come up if one stares at properly-formatted manuscripts all day.

Or improperly-formatted ones, for that matter. I know it may seem a bit hard for writers new to standard format to believe, but after a while, you honestly do develop an almost visceral sense of what looks right and what looks wrong on a page. (And for those of you who just wondered, “What does she mean, standard format?” never fear: I’m going to be revisiting the right way to format a manuscript for submission very soon. Improved by reader questions and comments from the last time I went over the rules, naturally.)

As fond as I am of posts that come to me in this manner, I must say, there’s a type that tickles me even more. Every so often, a reader will ask a question that prompts me to murmur, “Oh, go look in the archives — I must have covered that at some point on the blog,” into my tea. In my own defense, most of the time, this reaction is abundantly justified; surprisingly often, folks will apparently overlook both the MASSIVE and I think well-differentiated category list on the lower right-hand side of this page and the search engine in the upper right corner. (How do I know that they missed these? It’s not all that uncommon for someone to ask that I address a topic for which there are several specific categories on the list.)

Yet from time to time, I will find myself wondering if I actually have covered the topic in question. An hour or a day after I finished murmuring, I may well be frantically searching my own archives for something I could have sworn I posted about eons ago.

So we all have 13-year-old reader Malak to thank for the rather startling realization that I’ve never done a straightforward post explaining how books get published. You know, a single column to which I could refer someone curious about where to start.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? I’ve done dozens, if not hundreds, of posts on the intricacies of finding an agent, how to prepare a manuscript for submission, how to pitch your book at a writers’ conference, and so forth. Yet mysteriously, I have apparently neglected to address the single most likely question that a writer absolutely new to the process would be likely to ask.

I wasn’t kidding about how intuitive the ropes can seem to someone who has been climbing around on them for a lifetime.

In my own defense, this isn’t the juiciest topic for those already familiar with the basics, or one that’s likely to elicit many chuckles from my readership. In fact, bringing it up at all is practically the definition of a thankless task: not only are some of the aspects of the biz I’ll need to discuss downright depressing, but since there’s a lot of conflicting information on the subject floating around the web and the conference circuit, there’s also a high likelihood that this is going to be one of those series where readers write in, demanding that I reconcile what I’ve said here with something they’ve heard somewhere else — presuming, I suppose, that all of us who write about marketing writing regularly get together in a massive auditorium and vote on how best to get our collective story straight.

Wait — what was I thinking? Why on earth would I put all of us through that?

Oh, yeah: because this is information that everyone even considering trying to bring his book to publication needs to know. And aspiring writers who misunderstand how books do and don’t get published are likely to waste their time and resources on unsolicited submissions that will inevitably get rejected.

In other words, those of you who just murmured, “What’s an unsolicited submission?” are precisely the people for whom I am writing this. And Malak, of course. (How impressive is it that he’s completed a draft of his first book at 13, by the way? Are there other teenage members of the Author! Author! community pulling off feats like this? Leave a comment and tell us about it!)

So to our muttons: today, I’m going to begin to remedy the oversight. Because there are several ways a book can end up on a shelf in your local literary emporium, I’m going to break up the question into several parts. First, I’m going to tackle the classic means, publication through a great big publishing house.

But first, a little history — and while we’re at it, let’s debunk a few widely-believed myths.

How books used to get published during the Taft administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (mistakenly) believe the industry still works
A hundred years ago, the publication process was pretty straightforward: an author wrote a book, contacted an editor at a publishing house, and if the editor liked it, he (it was almost invariably a he) chatted about it with senior staff; if he could convince them to take a chance on the manuscript, he would edit it for publication. Printing presses were set in motion, and in due course, the book was available for sale. The publisher sent out advance copies to newspapers, so they could produce reviews.

Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Now, so many books are published in any given year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a newspaper or magazine.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, you’re far more likely to see a review of the eighteenth novel by an already-established author than the brilliant debut another. Assuming that the newspaper or magazine in question even carries book reviews anymore.

Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commercially available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence. The result was what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, but unlike today, when a manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread, publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.

This ever-burgeoning source of reading material was known as the slush pile. Although solicited submissions (i.e., those that the editor has actually asked to see) have probably always enjoyed a competitive advantage, slush pile manuscripts did occasionally get discovered and published.

They also, predictably, got lost on a fairly regular basis. Thus the old writerly truism: never send anyone the only copy of your manuscript.

Because there were fewer manuscripts (and publishing houses were more heavily staffed) before the advent of the personal computer, a writer did not need an agent: it was possible to deal directly with the editor who would handle the book, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when the hefty Taft was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.

Times change, as they say. One of the ways that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.

The fiction/nonfiction split
Both historically and now, novels were sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, they buy first novels that way; until fairly recently, the major publishing houses quite routinely offered fiction writers who had written promising first novels could snag a multi-book contract. It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well.

As a result, while multi-book contracts still exist — particularly in genre fiction, which is conducive to series — they have become substantially less common. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books before they can sell them.

Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials. Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work.

Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing.

That does not, however, mean that the writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Because buying something that does not exist obviously entails running the risk that the author may not deliver, the advance for a book sold in this manner is typically paid in three installments, one when the publication contract is signed, another after the editor has received and accepted the manuscript, and a third when the book actually comes out.

Call it an insurance policy for authorial good behavior. Apparently, novelists are regarded as shiftier sorts, because to this day, the only acceptable proof that they can write a book is to have already written one.

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? Good. Let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries.

The lingering demise of the slush pile
Just to clear up any misconceptions floating around out there: if you want to sell a book to a major U.S. publisher, you will need an agent to do it for you. The slush pile is no more; currently, all of the major houses will accept only represented manuscripts.

Like any broad-based policy, however, it comes with a few caveats. We’re only talking about the great big publishers here; there are plenty of smaller publishers that do accept direct submission. One hears tell of some children’s book divisions at major houses that still accept direct submissions; if an editor meets a writer at a conference and positively falls in love with his work, it’s not unheard-of for the editor to help the writer land an agent (usually one with whom the editor has worked recently) in order to side-step the policy. Stuff like that.

But it’s not wise to assume that you’re going to be the exception. If you’re hoping for a contract with a big publisher, get an agent first.

This was not always a prerequisite, of course. Until fairly recently, one element of that fiction/nonfiction split I was regaling you with above was that while novels had to go through an agent, nonfiction writers could submit proposals directly to publishers. Not so much anymore.

You novelists out there are a bit restive, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some of you complaining, and who could blame you? “This is starting to seem a trifle discriminatory against my ilk. NF writers are presenting substantially less writing than fiction writers; a proposal’s what, 40-60 pages, typically? As a novelist, I’m expected to produce an entire book. I would have thought that if publishing houses were going to distrust anybody enough to want an agent to vouch for ‘em, it would be the author whose book they were buying at the idea stage.”

Don’t upset yourselves, oh novelists; it’s not good for your stomach acids, and besides, since everyone needs an agent now, it’s a moot point. But I suspect that the answer to your question is that that publishers habitually receive far more fiction submissions than nonfiction ones — interesting, given the long-standing industry truism that fiction is easier to sell, both to editors and to readers. (It probably also has something to do with the fact that nonfiction books are often proposed by those with clip-worthy previous publishing credentials, such as magazine articles and newspaper columns, but believe me, the other reason would be more than sufficient.)

Before petty bickering begins to break out between fiction and nonfiction writers over a situation that has more or less vanished anyway, let’s turn our attention to a more absorbing topic: why would the big publishing houses feel so strongly about agents that they would all agree upon a represented-books-only policy?

The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as a necessary evil at best, agents perform an exceedingly important role in the current publishing market: not only do they bring brilliant new writers and amazing new books to editors’ attention, but they are now also effectively the first-round submission screeners for the publishing houses. By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.

In other words: they reject so the publishers don’t have to do so.

It’s easy to resent agents for this, to think of them as the self-appointed gatekeepers of American literature, but that’s not really fair. Much of what they assure that the editors never see honestly isn’t publishable, after all; I hate to disillusion anyone (and yet here I am doing it), but as Millicent the agency screener would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is not very well written. Even very promisingly-written submissions are often misformatted, or would require major editing, or just plain are not quite up to professional standards.

Or so runs the prevailing wisdom; we could debate for weeks over the extent to which that’s really true, or how difficult it often is for genuinely innovative writing to land an agent. Suffice it to say that if the major publishers believed that agents were rejecting manuscripts that their editors should be seeing, they presumably would change their policies about accepting only agented manuscripts, right?

Think about it; I think you’ll find it makes sense. You’re perfectly at liberty to continue to resent it, of course, but it will help you to understand the logic.

“Okay, Anne,” I hear some of you reluctantly conceding, “I get that if I hope to sell my book to a major U.S. publisher, I’m going to need to find myself an agent. But if you don’t mind my asking, what do I get out of the exchange, other than a possible entrée to an editorial desk?”

A good agent can do quite a bit for a writer. First, as you reluctant conceders already pointed out, an agent can make sure your manuscript or book proposal lands on the right desks: not just any old editor’s, but an editor with a successful track record in acquiring books like yours and shepherding them through the sometimes difficult publication process. (Don’t worry; I’ll be talking about that part later in this series.) Pulling that off requires both an intimate knowledge of who is looking to buy what right now — not always an easy task, considering how quickly publishing fads change and editorial staffs turn over — but also the connections to enable a successful pitch to the right audience.

In other words, for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly; he must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.

Agents also negotiate book contracts for their clients, act as a liaison between the author and the publishing house, and help mediate any disputes that might arise. Like, for instance, if the publishing house is being a mite slow in coughing up the contracted advance.

Yes, it happens, I’m sorry to report. And if it happens to you, you’re going to want an experienced agent on your side, fighting for your dosh.

Admittedly, it will be very much in your agent’s self-interest to make sure that you’re paid: in the U.S., reputable agents earn their livings solely from commissions (usually 15%) on their clients’ work. That means, of course, that if they don’t sell books, the agency doesn’t make any money.

Think about that: agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Doesn’t it make sense that agents would not take on manuscripts that they do not believe they can sell in the current market, even if the writing happens to be very good indeed?

Typically, the agent will handle all of the money an author makes on her book: the publisher pays advances and royalties to the agency, not directly to the author; the agency will then deduct the agent’s percentage, cut a check for the rest, and send it to the author. In the U.S., agencies are also responsible for providing their clients and the IRS with tax information and documentation.

Since self-employed people like writers have been known to get audited from time to time, you’re going to want this level of verifiability. Trust me on this one.

To recap how things have changed since William Howard Taft roamed the earth:
Way back when: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at major publishing houses directly to market their books.
The reality now: with few exceptions, a writer will require an agent to approach a publisher for her.

Way back when: fiction and nonfiction books were marketed in the same manner, as already-completed manuscripts.
The reality now: fiction is sold on the entire manuscript; with certain exceptions, nonfiction is sold as via a book proposal.

Way back when: nonfiction writers could approach major publishing houses directly with their book proposals.
The reality now: agents submit both fiction and nonfiction books on behalf of their authors.

Way back when: agents played a substantially smaller role in the overall dynamic of U.S. publishing.
The reality now: they largely determine which manuscripts editors will and will not see.

Way back when: an author often formed a personal relationship with his editor and other publishing house staff, sometimes lasting decades.
The reality now: the editor who acquires a book may not still be the editor handling it by the time it goes to press; a good agent can do a lot to help smooth over any resulting difficulties.

Whew — that’s quite a lot of information to absorb in a single post, isn’t it? I’m going to stop for the day, to give all of this time to sink in. Next time, on to what happens to a book after an agent submits it to an editor at a publishing house!

Yes, yes, I know: this isn’t precisely fun material to cover, but you will be happier in the long run if you’re familiar with it. And the next time a new reader like Malak asks how publishing works, I’ll know exactly which part of the archives will hold the answer.

Keep up the good work!

Wrapping it all up, part II: what precisely should go in that box?

Last time, at a reader’s request, I launched into an extensive discussion of the kind of boxes a writer should (sturdy, clean, size-appropriate) and should not use (grease-stained, mangled, clearly last used to ship books from Amazon) to send a manuscript to an agent, editor, or contest. It seems appropriate to follow that up with some examination of what a writer might conceivably want to stuff into that box.

Let’s pretend for a moment that you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams. To be absolutely clear, I’m talking about REQUESTED materials here, not just sending pages to an agency that asks queriers to include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited pages.

I know, I know: it’s a bit counter-intuitive that a blanket statement on a website, in an agency guide, or from a conference dais that a particular agent would like to receive these materials from all queriers doesn’t constitute solicitation, but it doesn’t. The logic runs thus: guidelines that recommend submitting extra material with a query are generic, aimed at any aspiring writer who might conceivably be considering sending a query.

By contrast, a solicited submission, a.k.a. requested materials, is one that an agent is WAITING to see because she has asked a particular writer to send it following a successful pitch or query. Because the agent expressed positive interest in seeing those pages, the lucky requestee is fully justified in scrawling REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters two inches high in the lower right-hand corner of the envelope or shipping box, just to the left of the address, to assure that the submission lands on the right desk instead of the slush pile made up of, you guessed it, unsolicited manuscripts.

Everyone clear on the difference between solicited and unsolicited materials? Dandy.

Just as generic requests vary in what agents ask queriers to send, so do requests for solicited material. While every agency and small publishing house seems to have a slightly different idea of what constitutes a standard submission packet (word to the wise: read those requests CAREFULLY), here are the most commonly-requested constituent parts, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the packet:

1. Cover letter
You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude, as well as strategically unwise.

“Oh, please, Anne,” I hear the submission-weary complain. “Rude? What do you call making a querier write ANOTHER letter to an agent who has already agreed to read my work?”

I sympathize with the submission fatigue, oh weary ones, but don’t get your hackles up. In the first place, there’s no need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. It’s hardly onerous.

In the second place, the submitter is the one who benefits from including a cover letter — all the more so because so few submitters remember to tuck one into their packets. An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these submitting writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries or pitches well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?

I’m not going to depress you by telling you just how unlikely this is to be the case.

Suffice it to say that it’s in your best interest to assume that the person who heard your pitch or read your query won’t be the first person to screen your submission, for the very simple reason that it is, in fact, often a different person. Thus, it doesn’t really make sense to presume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with who you are and what you write.

And it’s not problematic purely because a Millicent new to your project might get offended by not being addressed politely from the moment she opens the manuscript box. Does anyone out there want to take a guess at the PRACTICAL reason omitting both a cover letter and a title page might render a submitter less likely to get picked up?

If you instantly cried, “Because it renders the agency’s contacting the submitter substantially more difficult!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Like a query letter and a title page, a good cover letter should include all of the sender’s contact information — because the last response you want your submission to generate is a heart-felt, “Oh, it’s too bad we have no idea who sent us this or how to contact him or her; all we have is the author’s last name in the slug line. This saddens me, because I really liked this manuscript!”

Yes, that little piece of dialogue is pretty lousy, now that you mention it. But you get my point, right?

“Okay, Anne,” the former head-scratchers concede, “I get why I should include a cover letter. What does it need to say?”

Glad you asked. Under most circumstances, all it needs to say is this:

Seriously, that’s all there is to it. Like any other thank-you letter, the courtesy lies more in the fact that the sender took the time to write it, rather than in what it actually says.

A couple of caveats:

(a) If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. As crushing as it may be for the writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, but a gentle reminder never hurts.

While you’re at it, it’s not a bad idea to write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, along with REQUESTED MATERIALS. Heck, it’s a very good idea to write the conference’s name on the outside of a query to an agent one has heard speak at a conference, too, or to include the conference’s name in the subject line of a query e-mail. The point here is to render it pellucidly clear to the agent why you’re contacting her.

(b) If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering representing this book. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent is interested.

(c) Make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as I have shown above) or under your signature. Again, you want to make sure that the agent of your dreams can call you up and rave about how much she loved your submission, right?

(d) Make absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks. (Yes, it happens. Don’t ask; just prepare for the contingency.)

Everyone comfortable with the cover letter? For more tips on how to construct one with aplomb, please see COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS (where do I come up with these obscure category titles?) on the list at right.

2. Title page
ALWAYS include this, if ANY manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book. (If you have never formatted a professional manuscript before, please see the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right.)

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way.

Also, like the cover letter, the title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away.

3. The requested pages in standard format, unbound in any way.

The operative word here is requested. If an agent or editor asked you for a partial, send PRECISELY the requested number of pages. Don’t fudge here — even if your novel features a tremendous cliffhanger on p. 51, if the agent of your dreams asked for the first 50 pages, send only the first 50 pages, period.

Actually, in this instance, you should send only the first 50 pages even if they do not end in a period. Even if the designated last page ends mid-sentence, stop there.

As to sending pages in standard manuscript format, please, don’t get me started again the desirability of sending professionally-formatted submissions. For a month after I run a series on standard format , the rules keep running through my head like a nagging tune.

If you’re brand-new to reading this blog and thus successfully avoided my recent series on the subject, or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts over the last three years, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add something you would have learned from those posts on formatting: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way.

Oh, and do use at least 20-lb, bright white paper. Cheaper paper can begin to wilt after the first screener has rifled through it. Yes, it does increase the already quite substantial cost of submission, but this is one situation where being penny-wise can cost you serious presentation points.

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis.
With fiction, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not the annotated table of contents appropriate for nonfiction. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents.

Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for either is a synopsis.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I haven’t done a synopsis how-to in a while, so I shall be revisiting it beginning this coming weekend. For those of you in a greater hurry, please check out the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category at right. (How do I come up with these category titles?)

5. Author bio, if one was requested.
An author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author bio is tucked immediately at the end of the manuscript or sample chapter.

6. A SASE big enough to fit the entire manuscript.
This should be automatic by now, but to recap for those of you who will read this weeks or months from now in the archives: that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game.

Always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE. Why? Because since 9/11, someone who wants to mail a pre-metered package that weighs over two pounds via USPS has to tote it to a post office. Due to the paper-consumptive rigors of standard format, one rarely, if ever, meets a full-length manuscript that weighs less than two pounds.

When you send requested materials via mail (as opposed to submitting as an e-mail attachment), include in your submission packet an envelope or box addressed to yourself, along with sufficient postage for the safe return of EVERYTHING you have submitted, not just a #10 envelope so the agency may contact you to ask for more pages. If you feel like being really, really considerate, it’s nifty to include a #10 SASE, so the agent may contact you to ask for more pages, but in the age of e-mail and relatively inexpensive long-distance calling, that request is unlikely to come via regular mail.

Send a SASE large enough for the return of your materials EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. If the requested pages fit in a Manila or Priority Mail envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package.

How does one handle this when using a box as a SASE? Well, since it would be impracticable to fold up another Priority Mail box inside, if you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

To be on the safe side, explain HOW you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal. You didn’t hear it from me, of course, but sometimes, they evidently have trouble figuring it out.

You can also nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage. It’s bad enough that we writers are expected to underwrite the costs of agencies rejecting our work. (Which is, effectively, what the SASE accomplishes, right?) If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because they’ve rejected it. Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

“But Anne,” I hear the ecology-minded writers out there murmur, “surely it would be easier, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier to ask the agent or editor to recycle the submission pages if s/he rejects it?”

Yes, it would be all three, but I would strenuously advise against making this request of any agency or publishing house that doesn’t state directly on its website or in its agency guide listing that it will recycle rejected manuscripts. Most won’t, but many, many agencies will instruct their Millicents to reject any submission that arrives without a SASE.

Do you really want to chance it?

7. Optional extras.
If you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for them to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the bottom of the packet (and mention it in your cover letter.)

It’s also a good idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. To generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time.

8. Pack it all in a durable container that will keep your submission from getting damaged en route.

Why, this suggestion seems strangely familiar, somehow…oh, yes, we spent all of yesterday’s post talking about it.

And that, my friends, is the low-down on the submission packet. Don’t forget that EVERYTHING you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing please. No smudges or bent corners, either.

Make it all pretty and hope for the best. And, of course, keep up the good work!