Yes, I am fully aware that real people use run-on sentences in everyday speech, and first-person narratives should sound like real speakers, but honestly, must we go overboard?

gin and tonic

Sorry about the unusually lengthy posting hiatus, campers: as the not-particularly-evocative clich? goes, there’s been a lot going on. I know that many of you will be spending the long weekend (or just the weekend) honing your querying, submitting, and pitching skills. Or just indulging in some nice, unbroken writing time. It seemed like a good occasion for a fresh post.

Especially when I had already been devoting quite a bit of thought in my spare moments to the question of narrative voice. Specifically, voice in first-person narratives and the ways in which writers often bend, spindle, and mutilate the rules of grammar ostensibly to make the page read like everyday speech sounds.

Particularly likely to be sacrificed for the sake of speech-like flow: that pesky rule about run-on sentences. It doesn’t just dissolve, you know, when a writer chooses to embrace a first-person voice. As with other deliberate violations of standing rules of grammar, a writer may choose to do it for effect, just so long that she bears in mind that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, and their ilk may disagree with her over whether the effect justifies the means.

Why? Well, slip your tootsies into Millie’s moccasins for a sec and tell me: if you spent your day scanning the first page or two of a hundred submissions, most of which contained at least one typo, misspelling, or grammatical error, would your first response to clapping your eyes upon a page of first-person narrative consisting of paragraph-long sentences be

(1) to exclaim, “This is the most innovative approach to capturing the spoken word upon the page I’ve ever seen!”

(2) to sigh gently and murmur, “Well, it does sound like everyday speech — the copyeditor can always add the necessary punctuation later,” or

(3) to assume that the submitting writer just doesn’t know that run-on sentences are improper?

If, like Millicent, you immediately shouted, “3,” well, at least you have no illusions to be shattered. If you answered, “Why, #2, of course,” on the other hand, you might want to bear in mind that it’s not Millicent’s job to read charitably, nor to select manuscripts with an eye to providing her boss, the agent of your dreams, with extra unpaid editorial work. Professional manuscripts are expected to adhere to the rules of grammar unless there’s a darn good reason that they shouldn’t.

If you answered (1), you have a lovely nature, coupled with a most inadequate literary background. While I suppose it’s not completely beyond the bounds of probability that a screener could come to the job so inexperienced in the history of both the short story and YA that she’s unaware that the single most common means of creating a chatty voice involves stringing sentences together with and, it’s completely impossible that she could hold her job for more than a month without noticing the tendency.

Seriously, if an alien from the planet Targ attempted to learn the rules of written English solely by grabbing a couple of weeks’ worth of submissions from a well-established agency, it might well conclude that this I who seems to narrate so many stories is magically immune to the requirement to use periods. You’d be astonished at the frequency and vim with which your garden-variety first-person manuscript embraces the logic that that (a) everyone who has ever tread the earth’s crust has spoken in run-on sentences and (b) since the point of first-person narration is to sound precisely like people — all people — actually talk, (c) the only possible means of constructing a first-person narrative involves constructing sentences of a complexity and length to cause even the notoriously long-winded-in-a-single-breath Henry James to clutch his chest, gasp for air, and wheeze, “Really?”

To which editors the world over can only shake their heads wearily and concur, if only because (a), (b), and (c) are all demonstrably false. Individuals have been known to sport individualized speech patterns, you know; even if huge swathes of the population do spout and, but, and or constantly, I surely did not have the only mother in the New World who discouraged run-on constructions — as well as split infinitives, the ending of sentences in prepositions, and referring to one’s elders as “Bozo” — in everyday speech. (How else did you think little girls with braids grow up to be editors?)

Besides, can anyone explain the charm of a narrator that sounds like a generic person? Even in the unlikely event that someone actually spoke like a composite dictionary of American standard speech, why would a good writer want to write nothing but run-on sentences? It’s not as though the only goal of first-person narration (or of dialogue, for that matter) is to echo what people actually say, is it?

I’ll take that astonished silence for assent. Which is as it should be, as there are as many ways to construct a first-person narrative voice as there are individual characters up to narrating a book.

Yet in the overwhelming majority of first-person narratives, be they fiction or memoir, the humble conjunction is the hardest-working part of speech. Not that there isn’t some competition, mind you. Habitual word repetition, even if it’s limited to the level common in casual speech, can rapidly become both predictable and a bit dull on the page. Take a gander:

The street was empty and bare, free of chattering folk, the wayward crowd, and the well-advertised pitter-patter of tiny feet, but nevertheless, I conquered my incidentally completely reasonable fear of being hit in the head by a brick and ventured toward the castle. But I soon had reason to regret my own bravery and derring-do, believe you me: the instant I stepped into the crosswalk, a rain of boards, nails, stick-and-daub wall parts, thatch, and masonry hailed upon my head, evidently having made the transition from rain to hail somewhere in flight, the better to pelt and torment me. And yet I moved forward, as inextricably drawn to my ancestral home and its proud and lengthy tradition of revivifying corpses as I felt repelled by the angry and violent mob behind me, waving pitchforks and flaming torches in accordance with local tradition. Prudence, I felt, dictated a swift taking of cover, and my options were limited, so I leapt over the moat and drew up the drawbridge behind me.

Don’t see the problem, since the writing’s actually not bad here? Try reading it out loud. How many of those sentences could you speak in their entirety within a single breath?

While you’re hyperventilating from the attempt, you might want to take note of how often the same words (or different forms of the same words) turn up here. Why, even if we only highlight that most overused of words in manuscripts, and, this passage seems repetitive in both word choice and sentence structure. As Millicent would see it:

The street was empty and bare, free of chattering folk, the wayward crowd, and the well-advertised pitter-patter of tiny feet, but nevertheless, I conquered my incidentally completely reasonable fear of being hit in the head by a brick and ventured toward the castle. But I soon had reason to regret my own bravery and derring-do, believe you me: the instant I stepped into the crosswalk, a rain of boards, nails, stick-and-daub wall parts, thatch, and masonry hailed upon my head, evidently having made the transition from rain to hail somewhere in flight, the better to pelt and torment me. And yet I moved forward, as inextricably drawn to my ancestral home and its proud and lengthy tradition of revivifying corpses as I felt repelled by the angry and violent mob behind me, waving pitchforks and flaming torches in accordance with local tradition. Prudence, I felt, dictated a swift taking of cover, and my options were limited, so I leapt over the moat and drew up the drawbridge behind me.

I would strongly suggest replicating this exercise with several randomly-selected pages in your manuscript, to gain a sense of how Millicent would see your work. Yes, even if you don’t happen to be writing in the first person. Print the page, then circle and each time it appears; while you’re at it, draw a box around each use of those most pervasive of verbs, to be or to have. If you really want to get fancy, underline any word that appears more than once.

Once you’ve finished, prop the page against the back of your desk chair and take a few steps back. How many sentences remain unmarked?

Or, if that test sounds like too much trouble, you could always just scroll back through the bewildering array of examples cunningly tucked into my last few posts. Too great an affection for these multi-purpose words can lead, to run-on sentences, dull action sequences, and contracting nasty warts all over one’s kneecaps.

Well, okay, perhaps not the last. But the results still aren’t pretty, as far as Millicent is concerned. Any reasonably busy professional reader sees and in print so often that there might as well be a WANTED poster with its image plastered on the wall above her desk.

And‘s crime? Accessory to structurally repetitive prose.

Let’s face it: no other word is as single-handedly responsible for text that distracts the eye, enervates the mind, and wearies the soul by saying different things in more or less the same way over and over again on the page. Take, for instance, that immensely popular sentence structure, X happened and Y happened:

Vivian had her cake and ate it, too.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sentence, of course, standing alone. Solitude, however, tends not to be and‘s writer-preferred state. A perennial favorite in both submissions and contest entries, the X happened and Y happened sentence structure all too often travels in packs.

Vivian had her cake and ate it, too. Jorge ate what was left of Vivian’s cake and then went out and baked his own. After having tried his cake, Frankenstein’s monster broke into his apartment and destroyed his oven.

“I’m stopping him,” the monster told reporters and the requisite crowd of torch- and pitchfork-wielding locals, “before he bakes again.”

Did you catch it this time? Like any kind of sentence that appears too often within a short run of text, its tends to bore the reader after a while, even if the subject matter is inherently interesting — and yes, Virginia, even if every sentence in the run isn’t put together in precisely the same way. That’s and‘s fault, you know: when too many of them appear on a page, even the untrained eye starts unconsciously counting them.

Oh, turned pale, have you? “But Anne,” the more gifted conclusion-drawers among you quaver, “if I’ve already started toting ‘em up, how does a trained eye like Millicent’s respond? Especially if the ands in question have rampaged all over page 1 of a submission — or even, heaven help us, a query letter?

Good questions both, and they share the same answer what’s the most over-used word in Millicent’s vocabulary? “Next!”

That’s not to say, naturally, that the X happened and Y happened sentence structure doesn’t have some legitimate uses. It is appealing to writers because, let’s face it, it can provide a quick way to inform the reader of quite a bit of action in a short amount of text. Instead of having to write a brand-new sentence for each verb with the same subject, all of the action can be presented as a list, essentially.

That can be especially handy if the individual activities mentioned are necessary to plot, characterization, or clarity, but not especially interesting in and of themselves. Look how quickly we can polish off this string of events:

Weary from a long day at work, Ernie sat down and removed his heavy steel-toed boots.

Nothing wrong with that, right? The reader doesn’t need to spend two sentences mulling over Ernie’s rather predictable post-workday actions. Now, while we’ve got our revision spectacles on, we could debate from now until next Tuesday whether the reader actually needs to be told that Ernie sat down — it’s not exactly a character-revealing move, is it? — but that’s a matter of style, not proper presentation, right? Technically, this is a perfectly legitimate way to convey what’s going on.

Often, though, aspiring writers will present even quite a thrilling string of events in this manner, purely in the interest of telling a tale rapidly. This tactic is particularly popular amongst synopsis-writers trying to compress a complex plot into just a page or two.

ERNIE (27) comes home from work one day, removes his steel-toed boots, and discovers that the third toe on his left foot has transformed into a gecko. He cuts it off in a panic and takes it to a veterinarian, DR. LAO (93). Dr. Lao examines the gecko-toe and determines it has the capacity to knit exquisite sweaters. He and the gecko kill Ernie, go into business together, and soon take the skiwear market by storm.

Not the most scintillating way of describing the story, is it? The repetitive structure gives the impression that none of these potentially quite exciting plot developments is important enough to the story to rate its own sentence. Obviously, that’s a problem in a synopsis, where the goal is to present the story you’re telling as interesting and exciting.

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: it’s a pretty good idea for a narrative voice to present the story it’s telling as interesting and exciting, too. Copying the level of sentence structure and word repetition in everyday speech usually is not the best means of pulling that off.

Why? Well, many actual living, breathing, conversation-producing people do indeed incorporate the X happened and Y happened structure into their speech with great regularity. In many cases, with monotonous regularity. Certainly, it can feel awfully darned monotonous to the reader, if it appears on the printed page with anywhere near the frequency that it tumbles out of the average person’s mouth.

Perhaps less obviously, this structure can create a similarly dismissive impression on a manuscript page. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but skimming eye like You-Know-Who’s will frequently note only the first verb in a sentence and skip the rest.

Before any and-hugger out there takes umbrage at the idea of every sentence in his submission or contest entry’s not getting read in full, let’s take a moment to think about verb-listing sentences from Millicent’s perspective — or, indeed, from any reader’s viewpoint. If an action is not important enough to what’s going on for the writer to have devoted an entire sentence to it, why shouldn’t a reader assume that it’s vital to the scene?

I sense some squirming out there. “But Anne,” some of and‘s partisans hasten to point out, “while I admit that sometimes I lump a bunch of activity together in a few short, list-like sentences in order to speed things up a bit, that’s not the primary way I use and in my prose. As you yourself have mentioned, and not all that long ago, stringing together sentences beginning with but or yet, it creates the impression conversation-like flow. Isn’t that essential for a convincing first-person narrative?”

Chant it with me now, non-partisans: echoing recognizable speech patterns is only one technique for constructing a plausibly realistic first-person narrative voice. Far and away the most popular technique, as it happens. There’s a pretty good reason for that, of course; it would be hard to denying that

I woke up the next morning and poisoned my husband’s cornflakes.

is chatty, casual, echoing the way your local spouse-poisoner is likely to describe her activities to her next-door neighbor, should she happen to wish to confess to the first person she sees afterward. True, it doesn’t quite match the arid eloquence of Ambrose Bierce’s

Early one June morning in 1872, I murdered my father — an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.

But then, what does?

Yes? Do you clever people have anything you’d like to add here? Perhaps the observation that no matter why a word, phrase, sentence structure, and/or narrative device appears over and over again within a short span of text, it’s likely to strike a professional reader as repetitive?

No? Were you instead thinking of my oft-repeated axiom that just because something happens in the real world doesn’t necessarily mean that a transcript of it will make compelling reading?

Despite the sad fact that both of these observations are undoubtedly true, few real-world patterns are rendered with fidelity in writing as often as mundane verbal patterns, especially in dialogue. Social movements come and go unsung, jargon passes through the language literarily unnoted, entire financial systems melt down without generating so much as a mention in a novel — but heaven forefend that redundant or pause-riddled speech should not be reproduced mercilessly down to the last spouted clich?.

Don’t even get me started on the practically court-reporter levels of realism writers tend to lavish on characters who stutter or — how to put this gracefully? — do not cling tenaciously to the rules of grammar when they speak. In some manuscripts, it seems that if there’s an ain’t uttered within a five-mile radius, the writer is going to risk life and limb to track it down, stun it, and pin it to the page with quotation marks.

“I want it to sound real,” writers of this breed shout with engaging earnestness. “My goal is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s perspective, most of these writers don’t realize just how widespread this particular goal is — or that much real-life conversation would be either deadly dull, logically incoherent, or at minimum not literarily interesting transferred directly to the printed page.

Why? Well, for plenty of reasons, but let’s concentrate upon the one most relevant to us today: real-life speakers repeat both words and sentence structures to an extent that would make even the most patient reader rip her hair out at the roots in frustration.

And I’m talking arm hair here, people. If you doubt the intensity of this reaction, here’s a little experiment.

(1) Sit in a crowded caf? for two hours, jotting down the conversations around you verbatim.

No fair picking and choosing only the interesting ones; you’re striving for realistic dialogue, right?

(2) Go home and type up those conversations as scenes, using only the dialogue that you actually overheard.

No cheating: reproduce ALL of it.

(3) Wait a week.

(4) Seat yourself in a comfy chair and read the result in its entirety.

If you can peruse the result without falling into a profound slumber, congratulations! You have an unusually high threshold for boredom; perhaps you have a future as an agency screener. Or maybe you have cultivated an affection for the mundane that far outstrips that of the average reader.

(5) Ask yourself honestly: does the dialogue you overheard contain any entertainment value at all when reproduced in its entirety? Or are only selected lines worth preserving — if, indeed, any lines deserve to be passed down to posterity?

Even if you are lucky enough to stumble upon an unusually witty group of caf? denizens, it’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get the result past Millicent, either as dialogue or as narrative prose. Why? Glad you asked: in professional writing, merely sounding real is not enough; a manuscript must also be entertaining enough to hold a reader’s interest.

Yes, Virginia, even if the manuscript in question happens to be literary fiction, if it’s book-length. Most of what goes on in the real world, and nearly everything that’s said, doesn’t rise to the standards of literature.

Not of good literature, anyway. And that’s as it should be, as far as I’m concerned.

There’s more to being a writer than having adequate transcription skills, after all. Merely reproducing the real isn’t particularly ambitious, artistically speaking. Think about it: wouldn’t you rather apply your unique worldview and scintillating ability with words to create something better than reality?

In that spirit, let’s revisit that sentence structure beloved of the real-life speaker, X happened and Y happened and see if we can’t improve upon it. Why, here’s an example of it wandering by now.

Ghislaine blanched and placed her lily-white hand upon her swiftly-beating heart. Orlando nodded with satisfaction and strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously and continued to move closer.

Bugged you that time, didn’t it? Yet each of these sentences is grammatically correct, and this structure reads as though it is merely echoing common spoken English. It’s also pretty much the least interesting way to present the two acts in each sentence: the and is, after all, simply replacing the period that could logically separate each of these actions.

Now let’s take a look at how varying the sentence structure and adding the odd gerund livens things up:

Ghislaine blanched, her lily-white hand clutching her swiftly-beating heart. Orlando strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously, moving closer every second.

Easier to read, is it not? Admittedly, the prose here is still pretty purple, or at least a blushing lilac. At least the paragraph is no longer jumping up and down, screaming, “My author knows only one way to structure a sentence!”

Most agents, editors, and contest judges would agree with the paragraph’s assessment of its creator, alas. They tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure. I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third instance of this kind of sentence within half a page. Screaming has been known to ensue after the sixteenth use within the same space.

If that seems like an over-reaction, consider this: most professional readers go into the job because they like to read. Adore it. Can’t get enough of lovely prose. Lest we forget, people who work at agencies are individuals with personal preferences, rather than the set of automatons sharing a single brain that many aspiring writers presume them to be. I can guarantee, however, that they all share one characteristic: they love the language and the many ways in which it can be used.

Millicent screens manuscripts all day at work, pulls a battered paperback out of her bag on the subway home, and reads herself to sleep at night; her boss totes submissions back and forth on that same subway because he’s so devoted to his job that he does half of his new client consideration at home. And no matter how many manuscripts they reject in a given week, both wake up each and every day hoping that today, at last, will bring an amazing manuscript into the agency, one to believe in and guide forcefully toward other lovers of good literature.

With such an orientation, it’s genuinely frustrating to see a great story poorly presented, or an exciting new voice dimly discernible through a Frankenstein manuscript. Or — and this happens more often than any of us might care to think — when a talented writer was apparently in such a hurry to get a scene down on paper that a series of potentially fascinating actions degenerated into a list that barely hints at the marvelous passage that might have been.

“But Anne,” some of you cry, “I just love the charge-ahead rhythm all of those ands impart to a passage! If the writing is strong enough, the story gripping enough, surely a literature-lover like Millicent would be able to put her repetition reservations aside?”

I see that it’s time to get ruthless: I’m going to have to show you just how much damage an injudicious application of ands can inflict upon even the best writing. To make the lesson sting as much as possible, let’s take the exceptionally beautiful and oft-cited ending of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY. To refresh your memory:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Even before I finished typing this, I could sense hands shooting up all over the ether. “Aha, Anne! He began two sentences with and! And he used the very X happened and Y happened structure you’ve been complaining about for the last two posts. So you must be wrong about them both, right?”

No, actually — I selected this passage precisely because he does incorporate them; he also uses the passive voice in one sentence. He does it sparingly, selectively.

Look at the horror that might have resulted had he been less variable in his structural choices. (I apologize in advance for this, Scott, but I’m making a vital point here.)

And I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, and I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, and that it was somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, and it was where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, and in the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. And it eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster and we will stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Well might you cringe. Even when the writing is very good indeed, structural repetition can be distracting for the reader.

Where might one start to weed out the ands, you ask? Ah, but you’ve already begun doing it; I introduced that exercise above for a reason. All you have to do is expand its use from selected pages to your entire manuscript. Simply scan your pages for sentences in which and appears more than once.

Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case, and thus doubly ripe for revision. So you may be sure to spot it more easily in the wild, a multiple-and run-on will probably look something like this:

In avoiding the police, Babette ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.

This is a classic run-on — too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions. Ask yourself: is there another, more interesting way I could convey all of this information? If not, is all of this information even necessary?

Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect: to make the narrator sound less literate, for instance, or more childlike, or to emphasize the length of a list of actions the protagonist has to take to achieve a goal. Sometimes, the point is to increase the comic value of a scene by the speed with which it is described, as in this excerpt from Stella Gibbons’ immortal comedy, COLD COMFORT FARM:

He had told Flora all about his slim, expensive mistress, Lily, who made boring scenes and took up the time and energy which he would much sooner have spent with his wife, but he had to have Lily, because in Beverly Hills, if you did not have a mistress, people thought you were rather queer, and if, on the other hand, you spent all your time with your wife, and were quite firm about it, and said that you liked your wife, and, anyway, why the hell shouldn’t you, the papers came out with repulsive articles headed “Hollywood Czar’s Domestic Bliss,” and you had to supply them with pictures of your wife pouring your morning chocolate and watering the ferns.

So there was no way out of it, Mr. Neck said.

Quite the sentence, eh? (Not the second, silly — the first.) I’m going to part company with pretty much every other editor in the world for a moment and say that I think that a writer can get away with this sort of run-on every once in a while, under three very strict conditions:

(1) If (and only if) it serves a very specific narrative purpose that could not be achieved in any other manner (in this example, to convey the impression that Mr. Neck is in the habit of launching into such diatribes on intimate topics with relative strangers at the drop of the proverbial hat),

(2) If (and only if) it achieves that purpose entirely successfully (not a foregone conclusion, by any means), and

(3) If (and only if) the writer doesn’t use the same device elsewhere — or at least reserves the repetition of this choice for those few instances where including a run-on will have the greatest effect.

Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, as we have seen above, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and..and…and constructions, technically grammatical no-nos. You may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.

Let me ask you this: how is a speed-reading Millicent to tell the difference between a literate submitter pushing a grammatical boundary on purpose and some under-read yahoo who simply doesn’t know that run-ons are incorrect?

Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies an ingrained writing habit.

I’ve been sensing disgruntled rumblings out there since I uttered point #3. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I read a great deal, and I see published authors break this rule all the time. Doesn’t that mean that the language has changed, and people like you who go on and on about the rules of grammar are just fuddy-duddies who will be first up against the wall come the literary revolution?”

Whoa there, disgruntled rumblers — as I believe I may have pointed out before, I invented neither the rules of grammar nor the norms of submission evaluation. If I had, every agency and publishing house would post a clear, well-explained list of standard format expectations on its website, along with explanations of any personal reading preferences and pet peeves its staff might happen to have. Millicent would be a well-paid, under-worked reader who could spend all the time she wanted with any given submission in order to give it a full and thoughtful reading; her boss would be able to afford to take on a difficult-to-market book project every month or so, just because he happens to like the writing, and the government — heck, all governments — would issue delightful little checks to compensate writers for all of the time they must now spend marketing their own work.

As simple observation will tell you that none of these matters are under my personal control, kindly take me off your literary hit lists. Thank you.

Even in literary fiction, it’s dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission. To someone who hasn’t read more of your work than the first few pages of your manuscript, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you just don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, she’s going to reject the manuscript, almost invariably.

Then, too, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary writing. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.

To reproduce Millicent’s real-life dialogue with grim fidelity: “Next!”

Unless you are getting an extremely valuable effect out of a foray into the ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best. Make sure that two such sentences never appear back-to-back.

Why? To avoid that passage appearing to Millicent as the work of — horrors! — a habitual runner-on, or even — sacre bleu! — the rushed first draft of a writer who has become bored by what’s going on in the scene.

Naturally, neither may be a fair assessment in your case. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: “Do I really NEED to tell the reader this so tersely — or all within a single sentence? Or, indeed, at all?”

“Perhaps,” (you’re still speaking to yourself here, in case you were wondering) “I could find a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail. I notice by reading back over the relevant paragraphs that my X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on vivid specifics.”

My, you’re starting to think like an editor, reader. A Frankenstein manuscript just isn’t safe anymore when you’re in the room.

Since your eye is becoming so sophisticated, allow me to aim it at paragraphs where ands abound in order to consider another possibility: are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly for the reader to enjoy it? Are some of those overloaded sentences cramming four or five genuinely exciting actions together — and don’t some of these actions deserve their own sentences?

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK AND FLESH THIS OUT LATER?

C’mon, admit it — almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day. Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry.

Oh, you thought you were the only one who engaged in such minute-saving tactics? Don’t be so hard on yourself — writers do this all the time. When the point is just to get lines down on a page — or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the speediest way/ It’s a perfectly acceptable time-saving strategy for a first draft — as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.

When we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs, the results may be a bit grim. As we have already seen, relying heavily on the ands tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story.

When actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important, the reader tends to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.

Which, I’m guessing, is not precisely the response you want your sentences to evoke from Millicent, right? Call me psychic — and keep up the good work!

Do you mind if we talk about something else? Like, say, the times that try editors’ souls?

redundant sign 2

Or, to put it in more practical terms, if I promise to show you more properly-formatted pages while I’m at it, will you forgive my devoting tonight’s post to a foray into a notorious editorial pet peeve? What about if I talk about several?

It’s not as though there aren’t dozens from which to choose: as I may have horrified you with depressed you into a stupor by bringing up mentioned in passing last time, those of us fortunate enough to read for a living are expected — and often rigorously trained — to notice patterns in writing. How often a manuscript uses the word blanched, for instance, or describes anything as being mauve.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with either word choice, mind you, when used sparingly. Surely I will astonish no one, however, if I suggest that your garden-variety reader might prefer not to see characters blanching at the sight of mauve objects on every other page. Adult readers, if you must know, tend to become bored by word and phrase repetition every bit as quickly as they lose interest in a slow-moving plot, dull explanation, or unsympathetic protagonist’s plight. In order to spare the reading public that pain, editors strive to catch not only larger narrative issues, but also redundancies, whether they be of concept, image, or phrase.

And, bless our hearts, we are seldom shy about pointing them out, sometimes as early as the second or third time an author uses a pet word or action. “For heaven’s sake, Mavis,” we have been known to scrawl in manuscript margins, “Jeremy has blanched, went pale, and felt the blood drain from his face already in a 4-page scene — need he also waste the reader’s time noticing his ashen face in the nearest mirror? What’s a mirror doing in the middle of a forest, anyway? And while we’re talking plausibility,” Mavis would be expected to turn the page over here, to read the editorial scribblings on the back of the page, “are you planning at some point to provide the reader with some explanation for all of the mauve leaves on the purple trees? Is the water supply in this forest somehow tainted? Are the trees subject to some sort of lavender mite infestation? Or have you perhaps forgotten that the trees on the other side of the world you’re describing were also on the mauve side?”

Given so much provocation on the page, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that one of the great long-term liabilities of reading for a living — or one of the great advantages, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — is that over time, the dedicated pro becomes decreasingly able to read anything without scrawling corrections in the margins. I’m not merely talking about manuscripts, synopses, and queries here, mind you, but all typed words on a page. The New York Times, for instance, once the standard of American prose, now seldom passes under my long-lashed eyes without picking up some entirely justified marginalia. Nor do magazines go unscathed: I’m looking at you, Radcliffe Quarterly.

Heck, I routinely take a corrective pen to menus, fliers, and wedding programs. One recent November, I had to be restrained bodily from correcting a grievous misprint on my ballot for a county election; the proper spelling would have confused the counting machine, I’m told.

But would that not have been preferable to asking the citizenry to select a superior court joge? Possibly to serve in mauve robes?

While in some walks of life, this level of habitual scrutiny might prove somewhat problematic, for professional readers like agents, editors, and contest judges (or, in this county, joges), it’s a positive boon. So what if in some benighted professions, it is neither expected nor considered particularly sane to look one’s coworker in the eye and say, “I like the content of you’re saying, Ziggy, but the fact that you uttered the word exciting fourteen times over the course of a six-minute speech, insisted upon using impact as a verb, and failed to define a good third of your basic terms detracted from your presentation’s effectiveness,” without finding oneself cordially disinvited from all future meetings? Someone has to defend the language. And by gum, if that means rending our garments and wailing to the heavens, “You’ve used this metaphor twice in 137 pages! And phrased it almost identically each time, you…you?torturer,” well, we’re up to the task.

I see some of you blanching, doubtless at the thought of that manuscript you recently sent out to the agent of your dreams. Well might you turn pale, ashen-faced ones. If the same metaphor graced page 1 and page 241, a good editor would catch it. So is it really so much of a surprise that an even ordinarily conscientious agent — or, for that matter, Millicent, the agency screener — felt all of the blood draining from her face when that metaphor cropped up on pp. 1 and 5? Or — sacre bleu! — twice on page 1?

Half the good professional readers I know would not only have become impatient at any of these levels of metaphor repetition — they would have leapt to the conclusion that the writer was repeating himself so much on purpose. Clearly, this is an authorial plot to get away with lazy writing. As opposed to, say, an authorial failure to recognize that his pet phrase of today was also the pet phrase of three months, eight days, and sixteen hours ago.

How could you? You know how much such things upset Millicent.

Actually, you probably didn’t, at least when you first began to write. Until a writer has enjoyed the incomparable pleasure of having her work dissected disemboweled subjected to professional critique, she tends not to have any idea of how closely an agent or editor is likely to read, much less a Millicent. As we discussed yesterday, the overwhelming majority of first-time queriers and submitters fully expect their pages to be read with, if not a completely charitable eye, than at least a willingness to look past little things like conceptual redundancy and an over-reliance upon a select group of particularly nice words. It’s the overall writing that counts, right?

Can you hear Millicent giggling? From a professional reader’s perspective, the very notion that repetitious word choice, recycled notions, or even frequent typos would not be considered part of the authorial voice being offered in a submission is pretty funny. A screener can judge writing only by what’s on the manuscript page, after all. And is Millicent really so wrong to believe that a manuscript in which every inanimate object is apparently mauve-tinted might be indicative of a slight compositional problem?

Then, too, most writers radically underestimate how good a well-trained professional reader’s memory for text will be. Remember, Millicent is usually in training to become either an agent, who would be expected to read a client’s fourth revision and be able to tell how it had changed from the three previous drafts, or an editor, who might conceivably find himself telling a bestselling author, “By jingo, Maurice, I’m not going to let you do it! You used precisely that simile in Book I of this five-part series; you can’t reuse it in Book V!”

Oh, you think I’m exaggerating, do you? Earlier today, I found my text-addled mind drifting back to a novel-cum-memoir I had read, I kid you not, in junior high school. And not merely because Memorial Day is a natural time to consider the noble calling of memoir-writing. A pivotal scene in that book, I felt, would provide such a glorious illustration of a common narrative mistake — both in manuscripts and in queries, as it happens — that I just had to drop our series-in-progress and track down the book.

Yes, yes, I know: sometimes, even other editors are surprised at how well I remember text. A few years ago, when my own memoir was lumbering its way through the publication process, my acquiring editor scrawled in my margins, “Oh, yeah, right — you remember a biography of the Wright Brothers that you read in the third grade? Prove it!” I was able not only to give him a chapter breakdown of the book, but tell him the publisher and correctly identify the typeface.

That’s how little girls with braids grow up to be editors, in case you had been wondering. If anyone wants to talk about the estimable Katharine Wright Haskell, apparently the only member of the Wright family bright enough to realize that heaving the first airplane off the ground might be of more significance if somebody bothered to alert the media, I’m still prepared and raring to go.

So I had good reason to believe that my recollection of a fictionalized memoir ostensibly written by a childhood friend of Joan of Arc was reasonably accurate. A lighthearted burrow through the roughly two thousand volumes I carted up from California after my mother moved from my childhood home, so she would have to tote only the remaining eight thousand with her (long story), and voil?! The very pages I had in mind.

Care to guess whether I’d remembered the font correctly?

I’m delighted that I did, as this excerpt provides excellent examples of the kind of narrative missteps that Millicent thinks so many of you do on purpose, just to annoy her. For starters, it exhibits the all-too-common narrative trick of echoing the verbal habit of using and as a substitute for a period in first-person narration, in a misguided attempt to make the narrative voice sound more like everyday speech. It can work, but let’s face it, quite a bit of everyday speech is so repetitious that it would be stultifying if transcribed directly to the printed page.

It also, you will be pleased to hear, beautifully demonstrates another classic memoir bugbear: telling an anecdote on the page as one might do out loud at a cocktail party, with practically every sentence a summary statement. (Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is such a pervasive piece of editorial feedback.) And, most common of all in both memoir and fictional first-person narratives, the pages in question much character development for anyone but the protagonist.

All sounds pretty terrible, doesn’t it? Actually, the scene isn’t badly written; the aforementioned garden-variety reader might not even have noticed some of these problems. Nor, unfortunately, would most aspiring writers prior to submission, for the exceedingly simple reason that far too few of them ever actually sit down and read their work beginning to end, as any other reader would. The writer already knows what’s on the page, right?

Or does he? My guess is that in this instance, the writer had very little idea that what he was slapping on the page was even vaguely problematic.

But you shall judge for yourself. To render the parallels to what Millicent sees on a daily basis more obvious, as well as to continue our exercises in learning to know properly-formatted manuscript pages when we see ‘em, I’m presenting that memorable scene here in standard format. As always, my blogging program is for some reasons best known to itself a trifle hostile to page shots, so if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

Twain page 1

Twain page 2

Twain page 3

Come on, admit it — while you might have excused all of those ands if you had heard this tale told out loud, they’re a trifle eye-distracting on the page, are they not? Ditto with the word repetition — could this author possibly have crammed any more uses of to be, to get, or to see into these three pages? And don’t even get me started on concept repetition.

I sense those of you committed to the noble path of writing memoir — or writing reality-based fiction — shifting uncomfortably in your chairs. “But Anne,” you protest, averting your eyes, “this isn’t the powerful negative example you led us to expect. I get what you mean about the sheer volume of ands, but other than that, there’s nothing wrong with the narrative voice here, given that this is a memoir. Isn’t part of the point of any memoir that the voice does sound like someone might speak? Is that not, in fact, one of the charms of first-person narration in general?”

Well, yes, but just as an event’s having actually occurred in real life (and it’s true, too!) does not necessarily mean that it will inevitably strike the reader as plausible on the page, first-person narration’s reading like everyday speech does not guarantee readability. In print, narrative chattiness may work against the reader’s enjoyment, because chatty people, like the rest of us, reuse words and phrases so darned much. Even talented verbal anecdotalists seldom embellish their tales with the level of detail that the most threadbare of written accounts would require. And funny out loud, let’s face it, does not always equal funny on the page.

Which is to say: as delightful as our example above might have been tumbling out of the mouth of a gifted storyteller, as a story on a page, it’s lacking quite a few elements. A sense of place, for one — is there a reason, the reader must wonder, not to give us some sense of what either the woods or the village were like? If both are left so completely to the reader’s imagination, is there not some danger that a Millicent fresh from polishing off the manuscript before this one might automatically assume that those trees were mauve, and those villages occupied by the wan?

Oh, you thought I’d dropped that running joke? In a blog, I can get away with going back to that same well this often. How many times, though, do you think I could revisit the joke in a book before the reader got bored? Or Millicent became irritated?

While you’re pondering those troubling questions, let’s return to our example. How else does it fall short?

Well, as so often happens in memoir, we’re just told that the action is happening here or there, rather than shown what those places were like. And lest anyone be tempted to shout out that old writing truism, “But it’s stylish to leave something to the reader’s imagination!, let me ask you: based upon the pages above, could you tell me where these people are with enough specificity that a reader would be able to feel like she’s there?

“But that’s not fair!” I would not blame you for shouting indignantly. “It’s the writer’s job to establish a sense of place, not the reader’s job to guess.”

Precisely what Millicent would say. She would object, and rightly, to this scene’s providing her with too little description to enable her to picture Joan and her young friends operating within an environment. Nor are those friends fleshed out much, either in character or physical trait.

Heck, poor Millie doesn’t even get to see the frightening Benoist: instead, the memoirist merely asserts repeatedly that he and Joan were getting closer, without showing us what that have looked like to a bystander. Like, say, the narrator of the scene.

Speaking of the narrator, were you able to glean much of a sense of who he is as a person? How about what his relationship is to Joan? Are you even sure of their respective ages? Any idea what year it is? Heck, if you did not already know that the girl would grow up to be the patron saint of France — actually, one of four, but Joan of Arc is certainly the best known in this country — would anything but the children’s names tip you off about what part of the world these characters inhabit?

While I’m asking so many rhetorical questions in a row — another occupational hazard, I’m afraid; margins absorb them like a sponge does water — let me ask a more fundamental one: did you notice that although this excerpt is apparently about how the village’s children reacted to Joan, there’s practically no character development for her at all?

That’s at least marginally problematic, in a book entitled — wait for it — PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC. What, we are left to wonder, does she look like? Why doesn’t she stand up to her playmates (beyond, of course, the justification of being “so girlish and shrinking in all ways”) or, failing that, why doesn’t she simply walk away from the nasty little beasts?

And don’t stand there telling me that the narrator had no choice in the matter, because that’s how it really happened. Yes, a memoir or fact-based fictional story should be true, but it also has to be both interesting in the page and plausible. Reality, unfortunately, is not always plausible; it’s the writer’s job to make it so on the page.

Which begs another editorial question: why can’t a kid brave enough to face down the village madman’s axe (or ax, depending upon where it falls in this passage; the error is in the book in front of me), a rather interesting thing for a person to do, come up with more revealing answers to questions than a simple yes? This is another notorious editorial pet peeve: almost without exception, the least character-revealing way for anyone to answer a yes-or-no question is with — again, wait for it — a simple yes or no.

Are some of you writers of the real blanching now? “But Anne,” you gasp, clutching your ashen cheeks so heavily drained of blood, “people actually do answer questions that way! And isn’t the point of written dialogue to reproduce the feel of actual speech?”

Well, that’s one of the points of dialogue. Another is not to bore the reader to death, isn’t it? And, if at all possible, it should be entertaining.

Just holding a tape recorder up to nature tends not to be the surest means of hitting any of those excellent goals. Why? Chant it with me now: most everyday speech is repetitious.

I can stand here and keep saying that as long as necessary, people. Again and again and again.

As we may see in the scene above, a character that keeps saying nothing but “Yes” isn’t exactly thrilling the reader with deep insight into her thought processes. Or even into the scene itself: little Joan is not, after all, a hostile witness in a murder trial, but a child talking with her playmates. Wouldn’t it ultimately be more realistic, then, if she sounded like the latter?

Speaking of realism, would it be too much to ask the narrator to explain why the villagers left an axe lying anywhere near the madman’s cage in the first place? Might not the locals’ efforts have been more productively expended making sure he can’t get out than chopping off his fingers?

And yes, in response to what half of you just thought: this is precisely the kind of thing an editor would have gripped her pen angrily and inked into the margins of a manuscript. Not because she’s mean, but because she’s trying to help the writer give the reader a more enjoyable reader experience.

That’s a noble calling, too, you know. But in the unlikely event that some writer out there might care less about the moral beauty of Millicent and her ilk’s devotion to textual excellence than how to worm his way past it in order improve his submission’s chances of getting picked up by an agency, let me hasten to add that the sooner a writer learns to read his own manuscript the way a professional reader would, the easier he will find self-editing. Not to mention being able to catch the Millicent-irritants that can prompt a screener or contest judge to stop reading.

In the interest of helping you fine people develop that ability, let me ask you another question about today’s example: if you had previously known absolutely nothing about what the what the real-life Jeanne d’Arc achieved, wouldn’t you find it at least a trifle too pat that her playmates choose to picture her doing more or less what she grew up to do — and to laugh at her about it? If the girl had suggested this role herself, it might merely have been not-particularly-subtle foreshadowing, but honestly, can you think of any reason to include this at all except to make the reader feel cleverer than St. Joan’s playmates?

Millicent wouldn’t be able to think of one. Neither would most professional readers; it’s our job to deplore this sort of narrative ham-handedness.

“Just how ill-informed would a reader have to be not to find that first bit clumsy?” we mutter into our much-beloved coffee mugs. “Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone who would pick up a book about Joan of Arc would know that she lead an army and was burned at the stake, even if that reader knew nothing else about her? And if your garden-variety reader knows that much, isn’t it an insult to his intelligence to drop a giant sign reading Hey, dummy, this is foreshadowing?”

Was that mighty gust of wind that just whipped the cosmos the sound of half of the memoirists out there huffing with annoyance, or was it merely the first-person novelists sighing gustily? “But Anne,” both groups think loudly in unison, rather like the remarkably collective-minded children in the anecdote above, “this is how I was taught to write first-person narration. It’s supposed to sound exactly like a real person’s speech. So why shouldn’t St. Joan’s unnamed childhood buddy sound like anybody else telling anecdotes out loud?”

A couple of reasons, actually. Yes, good first-person narration takes into account the narrator’s individual speech patterns; no dialogue should sound like just anybody. Which is precisely the problem with all of those yeses, right? All by themselves, yes and no are generally presumed to mean the same thing, regardless of who is saying them. So, like polite spoken clich?s of the “Excuse me” and “I’m so sorry for your loss” ilk, they are too generic to convey personalized content.

Strong dialogue also typically reflects the narrator’s social status and education, personal prejudices, and what s/he could conceivably know in the situation at hand. And then there are those pesky individual quirks and, yes, the century in which s/he lived.

So I ask you, first-person writers: just how does the narrative voice in this passage indicate that this particular anecdote took place not too long after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415? As opposed to, say, the 1890s, when this account was first published?

And if you were tempted even for a nanosecond to mutter in response, “Well, if the 1980s is when readers would have been seeing this dialogue, sounding like that just would have seemed normal,” let me ask a follow-up question: if this scene were narrated in the voice of a pre-teen texting this to a friend today, would that make this scene ring truer to today’s readers? Or would it merely read as though the writer either hadn’t thought much about how Joan and her friends might have communicated with one another — or was presuming that today’s readers were not capable of following any type of dialogue than their own?

Those of us who read for a living have a term for that kind of assumption: insulting the reader’s intelligence. We often find ourselves scrawling it in margins.

How often, you ask, your faces a mask of pallid horror? Well, operating on the assumption that internal monologues have both always sounded pretty much like modern speech and don’t vary much from individual to individual is as common a mistake in first-person narratives as having all teenage characters sigh and roll their eyes is in YA submissions. Yes, some people do think and talk that way, but must everybody? Should Helen of Troy formulate her innermost thoughts in the same way as, say, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louisa May Alcott, or Confucius?

There’s a dinner party, eh? I’ll bring the stuffed grape leaves.

Doesn’t it make for more interesting narration if your narrator’s speech bears at least some marks of time? And if she has some individual quirks of thought and expression?

Besides, if we are going to be true to the rules of first-person narration, shouldn’t we be objecting to how often our narrator here professes to read the other children’s minds — although, notably, not Joan’s? I don’t know about you, but I find that most of the time, my thoughts are located in my own head, not floating somewhere in the middle of a group of bystanders. Millicent, too, tends to regard her own thoughts as separate from other people’s. The inevitable consequence: characters who think together tend to annoy her, unless their shared brains crop up within science fiction or fantasy context, where they can be plausible.

That cast a different light upon the narrative choice here, doesn’t it? As an editor might well scrawl in the margin, are we supposed to believe that our narrator in this instance is a mind-reader, or that the local children were too simple-minded to be able to form individual opinions about what is going on in front of them? Is the narrator just not familiar enough with the individual characters to be able to guess how their thoughts might have differed, or, (turn page over here) since he’s of a different social class than they are — not abundantly apparent in this scene, is it? — does his reporting that they all thought the same way a function of his views of their training in rational thinking? Or does it indicate the opposite, that he feels so close to them that he presumes that his beloved friends and he could only have thought and felt identically?

“Or, Mark,” the editor might conclude, “did you originally write this scene in the third person, with an omniscient narrator that could plausibly read everyone’s thoughts? If so, you can’t legitimately endow your first-person narrator with that ability. Pick a narrative perspective and stick to it!”

In fairness to Mark, as well as all of the blanching first-person narrative writers out there, plenty of writers actually were taught to write first-person narration this way — in short stories in their high school English classes. And with good faith, too: in short bursts, run-on sentences do indeed come across as ordinary speech-like. In the published examples of this type of narration that tend to turn up in class, it’s not all that unusual for the author’s voice and the first-person narrator’s voice to merge into colloquial harmony.

Or, to put it another way, Mark Twain tends to sound like Mark Twain, for instance, no matter whose perspective is dominating a particular story. That’s part of his branding as an author, right, his distinctive narrative voice and humorous worldview?

Admittedly, adopting a chatty voice makes quite a bit of sense for narrative voice in memoir. The reader is going to have to like how the narrator/protagonist talks about her life well enough to want to follow the story for a few hundred pages, after all; we might as well get friendly. Yet in practice, the primary danger of relying on the repetitive phrasing, clich?s, and percussive and use to achieve realistic-sounding narrative cadence is precisely that it will put off the reader because as the pages pass, it can become, at the risk of repeating myself, rather boring.

Think about it: even if a memoir were being told as a collection of verbal anecdotes, wouldn’t you rather listen to a storyteller with some individual flair for phrasing, instead of someone who just sounded like everyone else? No matter how inherently exciting a personal story is, a great telling can make it better reading. So can a narrative voice reflective of the time, place, and society in which that tale takes place.

But just try telling that to Mark Twain — who, as the sharper-eyed among you may already have noticed, wrote the scene above, in what he considered his best book. Although that retrospective assessment is a trifle hard to take seriously, in light of the fact that he published the book both under a pen name and in serial form. Actually, he took it to even one more remove: he wrote a preface under a nom de plume, presenting himself as the translator of a memoir written by one of young Joan’s contemporaries.

Why go to all that trouble? Because by all accounts, he felt that the poor sales of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER were largely attributable to his established audience’s expecting anything published under the name of Mark Twain to be a comedy. Good branding has its drawbacks for a creative artist.

Take that, purists who would like to believe that writing with an eye toward market concerns is a product of an increasingly cynical publishing industry over the last twenty or thirty years. Twain and his publisher worked out that tactic in the 1890s.

But I digress. As a reader, how well do you think his narrative choices worked here, either as fiction narration or as the memoir narration it originally professed to be? In your opinion as a writer, how do you feel about those slips into the first person plural — is the reader carried along with the we perspective as a narrative choice, as we were in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, or does it read like a perspective slip?

In today’s example, do you feel that the mostly distinctly modern narrative voice, coupled with the almost entirely uncritical view of Joan, was the best way to tell this tale? Reviewers in Twain’s time did not think so — they believed (and I must say I agreed with them back in junior high school) that a protagonist who never does anything wrong is a trifle on the dull side, as far as the reader is concerned. Twain’s Joan never sets a wee foot wrong; even in her earliest youth, he tells us, she raised her voice in anger only once, and even then it was to voice a patriotic thought.

A taciturnity unusual in a rabble-rouser, you must admit. Also an unusual characteristic for someone who challenged social norms enough for anyone to want to burn her at the stake: Twain’s narrator presents her as a quiet, universally beloved little girl. Butter, as folks used to say, would not melt in her mouth.

But is that how little girls with braids grow up to lead armies?

Twain evidently thought so. No matter how outside-the-box her observations or actions are shown to be (or, as we saw above, summarized to be), in this narrative, nothing she did or said from birth to the age of fourteen so much as ruffled the composure of the inhabitants of a querulous small village in wartime. Surprising, to say the least, in a young lady who by her own account had been engaging in frequent heart-to-heart chats with a couple of your more illustrious virgin martyrs since the age of twelve.

Perhaps the querulous small village where I spent my formative years was atypical, but I’m inclined to think that had I gone around snatching murder weapons from the clutches of local lunatics or holding confabs with deceased ancient Roman maidens, the locals might have had a thing or two to say about it. I’m also inclined to think that their observations would not have been entirely favorable, regardless of how winsome and girlish I might have been while disarming the maniac in question. It doesn’t strike me as the type of endeavor best undertaken in a party dress.

I’m not saying that Twain is necessarily factually incorrect about any of this; naturally, his best guess is as good as ours on a lot of these points. The little lady lived rather a long time ago, so the issue here is less historical accuracy than dramatic plausibility. Still, just because something really happened does not mean it will necessarily come across as plausible on the page; as agents like to say, it all depends on the writing.

As an editor, though, I think it was Uncle Mark’s job as a writer’s to make me believe his take on this. Presuming you agree with me — speak now or forever hold your peace — I ask you: was this narrative choice the best fit for the story he wanted to tell? And if not, should Millicent accept this manuscript?

Does the fact that a good third of you just began hyperventilating mean that it had not occurred to you that whether a story is not only well-written, but attacked from an appropriate narrative angle is a potential rejection trigger? It is, inevitably. Wouldn’t it have been nice if your last rejection letter had told you that, if Millicent or her boss thought that your first-person story would have worked better as a third-person narrative, or vice-versa?

Literary taste is, of course, to a very great extent individual, so only you can answer my question about Uncle Mark’s narrative choices to your own satisfaction. Am I correct in presuming, though, that you are at least a tiny bit curious about how an editor currently holding down the literary fort in the U.S. publishing world might respond to the choices he did make? Glad you asked. Let the scrawling begin!



What am I hoping you will take from this, you ask, eyes wide with horror and previously rosy cheeks drained of blood? Not merely that being a brilliant writer does not necessarily preclude turning out a clunker of a first draft from time to time — although that’s not a bad thing for aspiring writers to bear in mind. The popular conception of true literary talent’s consisting of letter-perfect creative phrasing dripping from one’s fingertips directly onto the page, with no further polishing necessary, each and every time, does not match up particularly well with reality. As any experienced editor could tell you, most of the books people regard as semi-miraculous productions of pure inspiration have actually been worked, reworked, and run past half a dozen critical readers.

And I mean critical readers. The kind who will remember what the author did in the same scene in each previous draft.

Remember that, please, the next time you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t seem to want to hit the page gracefully — or with much specificity. In moments like that, it can be very tempting to embrace the tack Twain did above, writing up the scene in summary form, with few vivid details, just to get the darned thing committed to paper as rapidly as humanly possible.

What makes me think that this was written quickly? Editorial instinct, mostly: I find it hard to believe that a humorist as gifted at reading out loud as I know Twain to have been would have killed the comedy — or bored the reader — with this much word repetition unless he was writing on a pretty tight deadline. Serialization tended to be submitted that way back then, you know, as Dickens would have been only too glad to tell you. Had Uncle Mark taken the time to revisit this scene and iron out its wrinkles, I don’t think there would have been quite so many references to eyes — and, frankly, I don’t think that he would have had his narrator faint at the climax of the scene. He was too good a storyteller.

But that choice certainly saved the author the trouble of having to figure out how the girl convinced the wild man to give up the axe, though, didn’t it? Trust me on this one: experienced editors — and Millicents — see this type of narrative shortcut often enough to recognize it for what it is.

So what should a savvy writer do when faced with this sort of first-draft dilemma? Go ahead, give in to temptation; there is value in getting a full scene on paper. Just make sure to set aside time later in the writing process to return to that scene and flesh it out.

Unless you would prefer to have your future editor bark at you, “This is lazy writing, Ambrose. Didn’t anybody ever tell you to show, don’t tell?”

Just in case nobody has yet snarled that in the general direction of your manuscript: show, don’t tell. Immerse your reader in sufficient details for her to be able to feel as though she is part of the scene, rather than leaving her to fill in the specifics for herself.

Oh, you don’t think that’s what Twain is doing here? Okay, rise from your chair, grab the nearest willing partner, and try to act out this interaction between young Joan and Benoist, based solely upon the choreography the narrator above chose to provide us:

She stood up and faced the man, and remained so. As we reached the wood that borders the grassy clearing and jumped into its shelter, two or three of us glanced back to see if Benoist was gaining on us, and this is what we saw — Joan standing, and the maniac gliding stealthily toward her with his axe lifted. The sight was sickening. We stood where we were, trembling and not able to move. I did not want to see murder done, and yet I could not take my eyes away. Now I saw Joan step forward to meet the man, though I believed my eyes must be deceiving me. Then I saw him stop. He threatened her with his ax, as if to warn her not to come further, but went steadily on, until she was right in front of him — right under his axe. Then she stopped, and seemed to begin to talk with him. It made me sick, yes, giddy, and everything swam around me, and I could not see anything for a time — whether long or brief I do not know. When this passed and I looked again, Joan was walking by the man’s side toward the village, holding him by his hand. The axe was in her other hand.

Not much practical guidance for the actors there, eh? Other than all of that seeing (a word most writers tend to overuse in early drafts, incidentally), the actual movements mentioned here are pretty routine: one party standing still, the other moving toward her. The mover threatens, but we are not told how. Admittedly, a lifted axe doesn’t have to move much to seem threatening, but did you notice how pretty much all of the sense of danger is conveyed via the narrator’s dread, rather than through showing the reader vivid, terrifying specifics? And how virtually all of that dread is summarized, rather than shown in any detail?

From an editorial perspective, that lack of specificity distances the reader from what should have been a thrilling scene: by leaving us to fill in the details, the narrator abdicates his proper role here. It’s his job to make us feel that we were there, or at least to show us the scene engagingly enough that we have that illusion.

Yes, he grounds us in his experience by telling us repeatedly that he is seeing this or that, and that these sights made him feel sick (and ultimately pass out). But great heavens, man, if you’re going to narrate a story like this, isn’t it your job to at least ask a bystander what happened, so you could share that information with the reader?

Don’t tell me that once you’ve seen one axe-wielding madman, you’ve seen ‘em all. As both a reader and an editor, I want to know what this particular madman looked, sounded, moved, smelled, and felt like. I want to know precisely what our heroine did that gave Benoist pause; I want to be shown how he crept up on her stealthily while apparently walking straight into her line of vision. And gosh darn it, I want to know how an axe of 1415 differed from one I might buy at the corner hardware store today.

Without those details, and phrased in fairly ordinary terms, this excerpt is indeed like everyday speech, in the negative sense, despite the inherently exciting subject matter. Substitute a memo-wielding boss for the axe-bearing madman, and this could have been an anecdote overheard in a coffee house after work, couldn’t it?

Please don’t limit your answer to a simple yes or no. I was hoping to learn something about you.

Distancing the reader from the action in this manner is an unfortunately common tactic in memoirs and first-person fictional narratives alike. Instead of showing the reader what happened through a fully realized scene, the narrator simply summarizes; rather than demonstrating relationship dynamics through dialogue or action, the narrator just sums up what was said. And by describing subsequent actions in the same words or in hackneyed terms (I believed my eyes must be deceiving me? Really, Mark?), the action may move forward, but the reader’s understanding of what’s going on does not.

Joan stood; Benoist glided. Then Joan stood while Benoist glided. Then she stopped — odd as the narrative had not shown her going forward. Then the narrator conveniently blacks out so we cannot see what is going on. Then the problem is solved. The end.

A bit mauve, isn’t it? Well might you turn pale.

Seldom is this the most interesting way to convey a story, in my experience. Like having characters answer yes-or-no questions with yes or no, as opposed to more detailed (and thus more character-revealing) responses, the summary route closes off story possibilities. And by definition, repeated phrasing adds nothing new to the scene.

Neither, incidentally, do all of those thens: logically, they are unnecessary. Why? Well, in a story in which events are being presented in chronological order, the occurrences in Sentence 1 are presumed to have happened before those in Sentence 2, which in turn came before what’s described in Sentence 3.

Thens, then, as we have seen them used in that last example, are logically redundant; most editors would advise you to reserve them for moments when what happens next is genuinely unexpected. Take a gander:

Joan stood; Benoist glided toward her with an axe. Then the Wright Brothers and their sister, Katherine, swooped through an opening in the forest canopy in a motorized glider to snatch the weapon away.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last twist coming, did you? As a reader, didn’t you get a kick out of that?

Remember, there’s more to telling a story than simply listing its events in the order they occurred. Racing from its beginning to its end may not be the best way to engage the reader. You want the journey to be both memorable and enjoyable, right? And if the narrative can manage either to surprise the reader with an unanticipated turn of events, delight her with astonishing imagery, or intrigue her with beautiful phrasing — ideally, all three — all the better.

Before I release you to ponder the challenges of expanding a first-person narrative from the anecdotal level into a completely inhabited scene, I want to talk about another common faux pas: the further distancing effect of the narrative’s reminding us repeatedly that the narrator is seeing, hearing, or observing this or that. Obviously — at least from a professional reader’s perspective — if an action or object is depicted in a first-person narrative, the narrator perceived it; otherwise, she could not legitimately bring it up, right?

So when Twain’s narrator tells us repeatedly that he saw Joan do this or Benoist do that, it’s logically redundant. Of course, he saw it: he was standing right there. Why bother to remind the reader of that self-evident fact? Or, to put it as a garment-rending professional reader might, does the author think the reader is too brain-dead to remember who the narrator is and that he is present?

Oh, you don’t want the pros to take every word you commit to the page that seriously? But it’s how they show their respect for your eventual readers!

And for your literary gifts. Again: if it’s on the page and the writer appears to possess even the slightest vestige of talent, Millicent is going to assume that you put it there on purpose. She’s also going to believe, with good reason, that if a writer has set up rules for how the story is to be told — in this case, from the point of view of a childhood friend of Joan’s, and only from his perspective — the narrative will follow those rules consistently.

This, too, trips up quite a lot of memoirists and other first-person narrator-wranglers. Once a narrative is committed to a single perspective, it cannot report anything outside of it without shattering the illusion of a limited point of view. Thus, when the narrator slips into the first person plural, informing us that we saw this or thought that, it’s jarring to the reader’s sensibilities.

And when, like Twain’s narrator, he professes to know what we all are thinking…well, let’s just say that maybe Joan isn’t the only one who needs to be worrying about going on trial for dabbling in the supernatural. Unless the narrative establishes some means by which a first-person narrator could possibly have reliable insight into other characters’ thoughts and feelings, he should really stick to his own.

If his thoughts and feelings are somehow different from every Tom, Dick, and Benoist who might be hanging around in the same place at the same time, great. If he can manage to express them in language evocative, memorable, and tailored to his individual worldview, though, even better. And if he can work in a little character development, perhaps through revealing dialogue, terrific.

Which is not a bad definition of memoir voice, if you think about it: a narrator with a strong personality and specific worldview recounting situations of significance to an overall dramatic story arc in language and from a perspective unique to the teller. If every sentence of your memoir — and, to bring this back to our series-in-progress, every sentence of your query’s book description — does not rise to that level, you might want to think about revising it.

Millicent will thank you. So will your readers.

So Mark, darling, as much as I admire your writing in general and short stories in particular, if I were your editor — oh, you thought that editors don’t live in the hope that this type of activity would be the first, best use of a time machine? — I would insist that you sat down and revised these three pages. Actually, I would do it because I admire your writing: your narrative voice, even in this rather serious book, is better than what we’re seeing here.

And that axe you keep telling us you’re seeing, narrator? Try to think of it as your editor, chopping away all of that phrasing and conceptual redundancy. Trust your reader’s intelligence a bit more, please.

Do bear in mind, too, that while reality itself can be convoluted and devoid of point, readers have a right to expect a book based upon real events to be a good story possessed of an identifiable story arc. It should be dramatically satisfying. And if the real-life version is not, believe me, Millicent isn’t going to be inclined to take that as an excuse.

No need to go pale about this. You can do it. But in order to pull it off successfully, you’re going to have to be able to read your work not only like a writer, but also like a reader.

Oh, it feels good to be delving back into craft. Would anyone mind if I continued to keep standard format illustration on the back burner for a bit and made narrative voice my topic of the week?

Actually, that’s a rhetorical question, come to think of it. Keep up the good work!

It may be possible to see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, but that doesn’t mean a submitter should play fast and loose with the space-time continuum

green anemone

Happy Memorial Day weekend, U.S.-based readers! Since one of the many, many sacrifices those of us devoted to the difficult task of self-expression routinely make is to trade what other folks might do with their long weekends for gloriously uninterrupted hours of writing — or, better yet, revising! — I thought you might appreciate a glimpse of the world outside your writing studios. Now get back to work!

Actually, I have an ulterior motive for opening with that photo: as I’m certainly not going to be the first to point out, those of us who read manuscripts for a living are noted for looking not just at the big picture — is this an interesting story? Does it grab the reader from the get-go? And the question dear to writers everywhere, is it well-written? — but also at the granular level. It also probably won’t stop the presses to point out that the notoriously close reading any given manuscript has to survive in order to be seriously considered for publication tends to come as a great, big, or even nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters. And don’t even get me started on how many literary contest entrants seem to operate on the assumption that contest judges are specifically selected for their propensity to read with a charitable eye.

Does that giant gasp I just heard indicate that some of you fine people have been laboring under one or both of those impressions, or is somebody about to go for a nice, leisurely swim? If it’s the former, you’re definitely not alone: all too often, talented writers new to the game rush their manuscripts out the door the instant after they’ve typed the last page, presumably in the fond hope that all agents, editors, and contest judges are such lovers of literature that they will judge the book by nothing but how well it’s written. And possibly, to a lesser extent, by the inherent interest of the story.

Or so Millicent the agency screener must surmise from how many of those submissions apparently have not been spell-checked. Or grammar-checked. Or even read through since the last revision, because how else could the writer not have noticed that several words seem to have dropped out of that sentence on page 33?

Oh, stop groaning. Don’t you want your future agent and acquiring editor to fall so in love with your writing that they examine it from every angle, down to the last grain of sand?

Before I take that resounding, “Heavens, no!” for an unqualified yes, let me hasten to remind you that in the long run, it truly is better for your book if the agent of your dreams (and Millicent, the stalwart soul s/he has entrusted to narrowing the thousands of queries and hundreds of submissions a good agent receives to the handful that s/he would actually have time to read without sacrificing the book-selling side of the job entirely) pays attention to the little stuff. Why? Well, let me put it this way: if Millicent’s eye may legitimately be called nit-picky, a good acquiring editor’s peepers should be regarded as microscopic.

Oh, you thought it was easy to read closely enough to catch that the narrative has used the same image on page 12 and page 315? Or that the writer fell so in love with the word verdant that it appears every time that anything vaguely green flashes by the reader’s consciousness? In a book about lawn care?

So if this series’ focus upon the little visual details has occasionally seemed a trifle, well, obsessive, congratulations — you’re gaining real insight into what professional readers are trained to do. And think about it: if Millicent and her ilk must pay such close attention to the text, how likely are they to catch any formatting glitches?

Uh-huh. Hard to miss that sea anemone lying on the sand, isn’t it?

In order to give you a Millicent’s-eye view of your manuscript, for the past few posts in this series, we’ve been comparing manuscripts in standard format with improperly-formatted ones. Yes, it’s been a lengthy slog, but hands up, those of you who have never had the opportunity to see a manuscript that actually got picked up by an agent and published by a traditional house up close and personal.

See, I told you that you were not alone. Quite the forest of hands, isn’t it?

In my experience, most rookie submitter mistakes arise not merely from simple ignorance of the strictures of standard format, but from the low-level panic that comes from having to guess whether one is performing the secret handshake correctly. The better an aspiring writer understands the rules, the less guesswork is involved. It may not eliminate the stress of submission entirely, but it does at least remove one of the most common stressors from the mix.

Okay, so it’s not what the average would think of as a little light weekend recreational stress release. Were you under the impression that being a brilliantly incisive observer and chronicler of the human condition was ordinary?

Which is why I’m completely confident that you’re up to the challenge of thinking of your writing on several levels simultaneously. Particularly when, like the savvy submitter that you are, you are reading your ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before sending it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with a literary contest or the publishing industry. Lest we forget, it’s much, much easier to catch formatting issues, typos, and logic problems that way.

Do I sense that simmering resentment at how hard it is for a new writer to break into print beginning to bubble up to the surface? “But Anne!” I hear aspiring writers everywhere shout, and who could blame you? “I don’t have a problem with making my manuscript ship-shape on a writing level before passing it under Millicent’s critical spectacles. Granted, revision can be a trifle irritating, but what really irks me is that after I’ve done it, that lovingly worked and reworked prose could be knocked out of consideration because of some arbitrary expectations about how professional book manuscripts should look on the page. Isn’t that just an annoying additional hoop through which I’m expected to leap, and don’t I have every right to resent it?”

Well, not exactly, bubblers-up. As we’ve been discussing, the rules of standard format actually are not arbitrary; most of them have a strong practical basis that might not be readily apparent from the writer’s side of the submission desk. Let’s take, for instance, the relatively straightforward requirements that manuscripts should be entirely typed, double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around.

I hear some of you snickering, but Millicent regularly reads submissions that do not conform to standard format in one or even all of these respects. It’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn, pages hand-numbered, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen. Or for an e-mailed query to an agency that asks to see the first few pages to be single-spaced — because that’s the norm for an e-mail, right?

Let’s take a peek at why all of those rules necessary, from a professional point of view. For continuity’s sake, let’s once again call upon our old friend Charles Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like — actually, since we’ve been looking at so many first pages lately, let’s live dangerously, shall we? Here are pages 1 and two.

2 cities good
2 CIties right page 2

Relatively easy to read, isn’t it? (Assuming that you find it so, of course. If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + until the type is large enough to read comfortably.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult it would be to screen, much less hand-edit, a manuscript that was not double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity. To render it an even better example of what makes Millicent’s optician rend his garments in despair, I’ve gone ahead and submitted a fuzzy photocopy, rather than a freshly-printed original.

I believe the proper term for this is reader-hostile. Even an unusually patient and literature-loving Millicent would reject a submission like this immediately, without reading so much as a word. As would, more often than not, Mehitabel.

And honestly, can you blame them?

Did I hear a few spit-takes after that last set of assertions from those of you joining us in mid-argument? “My goodness, Anne,” sputter those of you wiping coffee, tea, or other beverage of your choice off your incredulous faces, “why would any sane person consider presentation violations that serious an offense? It is, after all, precisely the same writing. Sure, it’s a little harder to read, but if it’s an e-mailed submission, Millicent could just expand the image. And it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of Charles’ dreams, couldn’t just ask him to reformat it.”

Yes on both counts, but surely you can appreciate why the Charles who submitted that last page would strike anyone accustomed to handling manuscripts as a much, much more difficult writer to work with than the Charles behind our first set of examples. The latter displays a fairly significant disregard for not only the norms of standard format, but also the optical comfort of the reader. Not to mention just shouting, “Hey, I don’t expect any feedback on this, ever!”

Oh, you didn’t spot that? Anyone who handles manuscripts for a living would. Even with nice, empty page backs upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a stern and probably lengthy lecture on the vicissitudes of the life editorial — and that fact that, despite impressive innovations in technology, intensive line editing a single-spaced document in either hard or soft copy is well-nigh impossible.

Too hard on the eyes — and where on earth would the comments go on the hard copy?

Don’t tempt her to reject your submission unread — and don’t even consider, I beg of you, providing a similar temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist. The contest judge, on the other hand, will be specifically instructed not to resist at all.

Yes, really. Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size, Mehitabel is likely to knock it out of the running on sight.

Are some of you are blushing? Perhaps some past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages?

No? Let me fill you in on a much-deplored practice, then: faced with a hard-and-fast page limit, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, the logic runs, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of roughly how many characters fit on a properly-formatted page.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study the correctly formatted page 2 in our first example. Then take a gander at this wee gem of tricky intent:

2 Cities cheating page 2

Admit it: you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler? Yet I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far, far less of a reduction than most fudgers attempt when, say, they’re trying to fit 26 pages of manuscript into a contest entry with a 25-page limit. So how likely is this little gambit to pay off for the submitter?

Exactly. Amazingly enough, people who read for a living very seldom appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. No matter how much Charles felt that last example added life to his opening — or how right he was about that — Millicent will simply notice that he tried to cheat in order to get more of his words in front of her eyeballs than writers conscientious enough to follow the rules. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: Alarmingly often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface on a query. “What’s two tenths of an inch?” they reassure themselves. “And honestly, who is going to be able to tell the difference between 12-point type at 99%, rather than 100%?”

Help yourself to a gold star for the day if you immediately answered: “Someone who reads queries all day, every day. And two-tenths of an inch all around can, as Uncle Charles has just demonstrated, add up to a great deal more text on a page.”

Another common means of fudging spacing: incomplete adherence to the rules bout skipping spaces after periods and colons. Specifically, skipping two spaces (as tradition requires) in most instances, but omitting the second space when doing so would make the difference between a paragraph’s ending with a single word on the last line and being able to use that line to begin a new paragraph.

Shame on you, those who just bellowed, “Wow, that’s a great idea — over the course of an entire chapter, that might free up a page of text for my nefarious purposes!” Don’t you think inconsistent spacing is the kind of thing a reader trained to spot textual oddities might conceivably notice?

And for good reason: waffling about how often to hit the space bar can be a tell-tale sign that a writer isn’t altogether comfortable with writing in standard format. Such a writer’s work would, presumably, need to be proofread for formatting more closely than other agency clients’ work, would it not? And that in turn would mean that signing such a writer would inevitably means devoting either unanticipated staff time to double-checking his manuscripts or training in the delights of consistent rule application, right?

Those rhetorical questions would be equally applicable whether the agency in question happened to favor either the two-space or one-space convention, incidentally. Consistency is the key to proper manuscript formatting, after all, and all the more likely to be valued if an agency’s guidelines ask for something specific in a submission.

Why? Well, think about it: when you first thought about querying and submitting, would it have occurred to you to check each and every agency’s website (if it has one; not all do, even at this late date) for submission guidelines? So if you were the Millicent screening manuscripts for an agent with a desperate aversion to that second space after the comma (she had a nasty run-in with a journalist on a cross-country flight , perhaps; he may have menaced her with a copy of the AP’s formatting guidelines), and your boss had been considerate enough to post a reference to that aversion on the agency’s website, on her blog, and in 47 online interviews, wouldn’t that be one of the first things you looked for in a submission?

Let’s all chant it together, shall we? If an agency or publishing house’s submission guidelines ask for something specific, for heaven’s sake, give it to them. But don’t generalize that individual preferences to the entire industry, okay? And if they don’t express a preference, stick to standard format.

Yes, regardless of what you may have heard online about how nobody is using double-spacing after periods and colons in book manuscripts anymore. It’s simply not true that it’s generally an instant-rejection offense, on the grounds that manuscripts including the second space look hopelessly old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what, cookie — standard manuscript format is old-fashioned, by definition. That doesn’t seem to stop most of the currently-published authors of the English-speaking world from using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen an already agented manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. Possibly because those that feel strongly about the single-space convention tend to be up front about not being likely to fall in love with submissions featuring what they perceive to be extra spaces.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

If you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation, clap yourself heartily on the back: standard estimates assume those doubled spaces. (If you don’t know how and why word count is tallied, please see the HOW TO ESTIMATE WORD COUNT — AND WHY category on the archive list at right.) Give yourself a nice, warm hug if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit. Because we all know about the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

I can sense blood pressure rising over this issue, but honestly, inconsistent application of either rule is far more likely to raise red flags with Millicent than clinging like an unusually tenacious leech to either the one- or two-space convention. Particularly if that inconsistency — or slightly off sizing — seems to allow more words per page than is usual.

My point, should you care to know it, is that a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on, so let’s work a bit more to increase your visceral sense that something is wrong. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate my next common gaffe very well.

Reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer, I seem to have grabbed Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful take on the Bluebeard myth, VERA. Taking a page at random, let’s take a look at it properly formatted in manuscript form.

Vera correctly

There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations could be. Now cast your eye over the same text with a couple of very minor formatting alterations.

Doesn’t look significantly different to the naked eye, does it? Yet the word count is slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words. That may not seem like a big difference, but it’s enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

“But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers exclaim, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”?

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would indeed be to allow more words per page, not less. But the scanter space between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.

I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was. Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer apparently did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. As we were discussing only the other day, this insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

As would tinkering with the bottom margin to allow an extra line on the page. Here it is with only a minor change, a .9 inch bottom margin instead of 1 inch, a modification so minute that a non-professional reader would probably not notice that it was non-standard. To compress a bit more, let’s have only one space after each period.

Vera with extra line

A bit claustrophobic, is it not? If you don’t find it so, consider it as Millicent would: not as an individual page, isolated in space and time, but as one of the several thousand she has read that week. Lest we forget, most of the ones she will have been taking seriously will have looked like this:

Vera correctly

See it now? While Millicent is highly unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to whip out a ruler to check whether that bottom margin is really a full inch (although Mehitabel might), she will be able to tell that this page has more words on the page than the others she has seen that day. She might not be able to tell instantly precisely how this page has been modified, but she will be able to tell that something’s off.

“But Anne,” clever rule-manipulators all over North America shout, “I’ve been modifying my submissions this way for years, and nobody has ever called me out on it. Therefore, I do not believe it’s ever been a factor in my work being rejected — and it does allow me to stay under that all-important 400-page limit.”

Perhaps, rules-lawyers, but let me ask you a question: have you ever had such a manuscript accepted?

Well might some jaws drop. It’s an extremely common submitter’s misconception, especially amongst those brand-new to the game or who have only submitted pages as part of a query packet, rather than as requested materials, that if they were really doing something wrong, the rejecter would tell them so. And tell them what it is, naturally, so they could do better next time.

In these days of form-letter rejections — and even no-reply rejections — this is simply an unrealistic expectation. Unless an agent or editor is asking for the writer to revise and resubmit the manuscript (in itself something of a rarity these days), why would they take the time?

Well, yes, to be nice would be a perfectly acceptable response, from a writer’s perspective. If a well-established agent received only a hundred queries per month and asked for one manuscript — not all that uncommon a ratio thirty years ago — writing personalized rejections would be both kind and not unduly time-consuming. Presuming, of course, that the rejected writer of the month did not consider a detailed rejection an invitation to argue about the manuscripts merits.

Consider for a moment, though, the agent that receives hundreds of queries per day. See why kindly advice-giving rejection letters might have become something of a rarity?

Especially if the rejection reason had to do with a formatting error. Honestly, it would eat up half of Millicent’s screening day. Why? Well, most submissions contain at least one — formatting problems, like typos, grammar gaffes, and wolves, tend to travel in packs. Even with the best of wills, it would be prohibitively time-consuming for Millicent to scrawl try learning how to format a manuscript, honey.

No, regardless of whether the ultimate rejection trigger for VERA was that extra line per page, the second misspelling in paragraph 2, or a premise that Millicent has seen seventeen times that week, the reasons given for sending back the submission would probably run like this: I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with this story, and I don’t feel that I can sell this in the current tough market. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

The moral of this sad, sad story: it seldom pays to assume that you’re doing it right just because you haven’t been told you are doing it wrong. It pays even less often to conclude from the generalities of a boilerplate rejection that there can’t have been any specific technical problem that caused Millicent, if not to reject it outright, then at least to take the submission less seriously.

Besides, another notorious agents’ pet peeve was lurking in the background — although in all probability, it would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent. Here’s the page again; see if you can spot it this time. Hint: it was not in the properly-formatted version.

Crown yourself with a laurel wreath if, while running your eyes thoughtfully over that last example, your peepers became riveted to the next-to-last line of the page: an emdash (–, one long line) instead of a doubled dash with spaces on either end. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not applicable to manuscripts.

Which brings me to yet another moral for the day: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a manuscript. Or book proposal. Or contest entry.

Or a professional reader wouldn’t instantly spot a trifle imported from the wonderful world of published books. Remember, Millicent scans manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a surprisingly short while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

Please don’t dismiss this as unimportant to your success as a writer. If writing is solid, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” do you not?

Spare Millie the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Believe me, she could use a brilliantly-written, impeccably-formatted submission to brighten her possibly Dickensian day. Be compassionate toward her plight — and your submission’s, proposal’s, and/or contest entry’s. Pay close enough attention to the technical details that yours the submission that makes her say, “Oh, here is good writing, well presented.”

My, all of those individual grains of sand are attractive, aren’t they? Keep up the good work!

It’s all a matter of perspective, or, let’s move the piano over here. Wait — how would it look over there? And other tales of title page formatting.

sagrada familia ceiling3

If you’ve been hearing the Muses tap-dancing on the floor of heaven today, I think I know why: at long last, Author! Author!’s epic behind-the-scenes site upgrade has officially drawn to a close. It’s still going to take me a while to go back through the literally thousands of pages of archival posts, making sure that they’re taking kindly to all of the new bells and whistles, but in theory, the bulk of my blogging time will no longer be sacrificed on the altar of the Internet Deity.

Who, I gather, does not hobnob much with the Muses. If s/he did — hey, who am I to impose gender norms on higher beings? — all of the formerly fuzzy page shots would have magically clarified themselves in the course of this upgrade. Please bear with me while I painstakingly go back and refocus ‘em.

In the meantime, let’s get back to the matter at hand: the proper formatting of book manuscripts. As Odysseus no doubt said to his sailors and soldiers on the way home from the Trojan War, I know that it feels as though we’ve been on this journey forever, but it can’t be much farther now.

But hark! Do I hear some discontented murmuring amongst aesthetes out there in the ether? “But Anne,” visually-oriented aspiring writers murmur under their breath, so as not to attract the wrath of their nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, “my objection is not so much to the sheer length of time we’ve spent going over the strictures of standard format for book manuscripts — not to be confused with the formatting norms for short stories, magazine articles, screenplays, or any other kind of writing intended for professional submission — but to what I feel these rules are doing to my personal style. The pages look so plain! These rules are stepping all over my right to creative expression.

“So I’m asking you as a friend, Anne: if I believe my writing looks best in a special font like Abadi MT Condensed Extra Bold, and it’s how I want my words to look in the published book, why shouldn’t I run with it in a submission? Surely, Millicent can look past a little originality of presentation while she is seeking originality in writing.”

That’s a good question, murmuring aesthetes. The short answer: because Millicent will take your writing more seriously if you format it as she expects to see it — that is, the way that professional book manuscripts are formatted.

And why might she respond better to that than a more creatively-presented set of pages, murmurers? Is it time to trot out the broken record again?

broken-record3 A manuscript should not resemble a published book in many important respects. Therefore, formatting a submission to reflect one’s publication preferences on matters like font (which is the publishing house’s decision, anyway, not the author’s) will not strike the pros as a creative choice, but a reflection of a misunderstanding of how publishing works — and an indication that the writer has not yet taken the time to learn the rules of submission.

What’s that you’re murmuring now? That this is a pretty sweeping set of conclusions to draw from something as simple as font choice or a title page graced with a photograph? Perhaps, but to someone who deals with manuscripts and/or book proposals all day, every day, for years on end, it’s not all that far-fetched. After all, it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of your dreams, would ever consider submitting your manuscript to an editor at a publishing house in anything but standard format; it wouldn’t be taken seriously.

An editor would be too busy staring at that remarkable font choice or non-standard indentation to pay close attention to what’s dearest to any writer’s heart, the actual writing. So in practice, discontented murmurers, presenting your original writing in standard format is more conducive to getting your creative expression into print, not less.

Counterintuitive, isn’t it? That’s because you’ve been looking at the page like a writer, rather than an agent, editor, contest judge, or the Millicent lucky enough to screen submissions for any of the above. It’s all a matter of perspective. As international relations professors like to say early and often, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Don’t see why perception of writing talent, like beauty, might lie partially in the eye of the beholder? Okay, tell me: did I take the photograph gracing the top of this post while looking down into an abyss, sideways into an alcove, or up at an impossibly high ceiling?

Out of context, it’s hard to tell which way is up, isn’t it? (But here’s a hint: the purple stuff is flying dust.) Without some orienting landmarks, it’s difficult even to know for sure what you’re looking at, or from what direction.

That’s more or less the same problem the average aspiring writer faces when looking at her own first manuscript or book proposal with an eye to figuring out whether it is formatted correctly. Let’s face it, very, very few as-yet-to-be-published writers have ever seen a professional manuscript up close and personal; still fewer have had the opportunity to glance through a professional book proposal.

Oh, there’s plenty of advice out there on how it should be done, of course, but as many of you have no doubt noted with chagrin, sources differ. And surprisingly often, the sources most inclined to tell aspiring writers that they have no hope in Hades of landing an agent if their manuscripts don’t contain Feature X (because Millicents have, presumably, been trained to reject X-less manuscripts on sight, then rush to a national blackballing database, to urge every other agency in the country not even to open that writer’s queries) or if they do contain Feature Y (because not only is Y hopelessly old-fashioned, but spotting even a single instance of it will provoke gales of laughter from Millicent) do not pause in their warning spates long enough to explain why X is desirable in a submission or Y is not.

Heck, most sets of rules don’t even specify to which kind of manuscript they’re supposed to be applied. No wonder so many aspiring writers labor under the false impression that all writing, anywhere, anytime, should be formatted identically, upon pain of instant rejection. Or, like our murmurers above, just assume that the welter of conflicting guidelines must indicate that Millicent is serious about only the elements common to most sets of rules. Like our murmurers above, they presume that as long as a manuscript is double-spaced and in 12-point type, anything goes.

As you may perhaps have gathered from my many years of revisiting this topic, I have nothing but sympathy for writers at both ends of the spectrum. How on earth is someone new to the game supposed to figure out which end of the manuscript is up, figuratively speaking?

The trick lies in remembering that the principles governing manuscript formatting are based upon practical and historical considerations, not purely aesthetic ones. Shall we wind up that Victrola again?

broken-recordA manuscript is designed to be easy for the intended audience to read, not for the writer to produce. Thus, while two-inch margins and a cursive typeface may strike a writer as the perfect expressive extension of the spirit of his novel, to someone who reads manuscripts for a living, they’re just puzzling. And, frankly, distracting from the writing.

What looks right in a manuscript, in other words, depends upon the perspective of the person reading it. From where Millicent is sitting, non-standard formatting makes it harder for her to pay attention to the writing. Obviously, she reasons, a writer who presents his work in 14-point type or with half-inch margins, is either unaware that these choices are eye-distracting. So rather than impressing her with his creativity, he simply seems out of touch with how publishing works.

And why might Millicent’s drawing that conclusion from her first glance at page 1 prove problematic for the submission, campers? Out comes the broken record:

broken-record4 Because professional manuscripts and book proposals are always present in the same way, Millicent knows that her boss, the agent of your dreams, would have a hard time convincing an editor at a major publishing house to read even the first page of an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript. She also knows that taking on a manuscript by a writer unaware of that will be more time-consuming to represent than one already familiar with how submissions to publishers work.

That means, unfortunately for lovers of wacky typefaces everywhere, that a choice as small as a typeface can make an astonishingly great difference to how professional your work looks to the pros. That comes as something of a surprise to most aspiring writers — who, not entirely surprisingly, tend to regard that particular decision as a purely aesthetic one. “Why,” they ask, and not unreasonably, “should it matter? Good writing’s good writing, isn’t it?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, good writing is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. No, insofar as good writing tends to have less impact on the average Millicent when it’s presented in an unusual typeface.

To see why, let’s once again start at the top of the submission packet, taking a gander at the same title page in three different typefaces. Here it is in 12-point Times New Roman, one of the two preferred typefaces:

Title page 1

That’s what anyone sitting in Millicent’s seat would expect to see — and before we move on, would you join me in tap-dancing with the Muses over how much crisper that image is than any of the page shots I’ve been able to post within recent memory? Nearly brings a tear to the eye, that does. Should your emotional intensity be interfering with your ability to spot the small details, try holding down the Command key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Now that we have it in focus, let’s look at precisely the same information, presented in another font. Let’s assuming that Aunt Jane had favored 12-point Helvetica so strongly that she just couldn’t resist submitting in it:

Title page 2

The letters in this version are quite a bit bigger than in the first, aren’t they? Not enough so to appear to be rendered in, say, 14-point font, but large enough to make Millicent wonder whether the word count is accurate. (Estimated word count does, after all, vary by typeface: Times New Roman is estimated at 250 words/page, Courier at 200. More on that below.)

Honestly, do you want her speculating about your credibility before reading the first page of your manuscript? Now that we have seated ourselves firmly in Millicent’s office chair, we can see that Aunt Jane’s choice of Helvetica, while not a deal-breaker, does not necessarily present her manuscript to its best advantage. Even before the text starts, it’s distracting.

Does that increased volume of disgruntled ethereal muttering mean some of you are longing to see a typeface that would be a deal-breaker for Millicent? Happy to oblige. Very few of us who read for a living would be even vaguely tempted to turn the page and start reading this one.

Title page 3

Can’t really blame Millicent for regarding the entire manuscript with a jaundiced eye, can we? Despite containing all of the information that a title page should include — in the right places and in the right order, no less — this page simply screams that Aunt Jane has not thought about her future agent’s ease or comfort in reading. Clearly, she was so intent upon expressing herself via font that she neglected to consider the preferences of someone who might conceivably want to judge her writing.

Still resisting the concept? Okay, slip back into Millicent’s moccasins for a second, pretend you’ve been screening submissions for the last seven hours, and feast your eyes on this:

Title page 4

Ah, that one caught some of you originality-huggers by surprise, didn’t it? “But Anne,” those who want to stand out from the crowd protest, “I’ve been submitting my writing on slightly tinted paper for years. White is just so boring, and besides, everybody uses it. I’m merely being strategic: if every other submission Millie sees today is white, mine will automatically catch her eye, right?”

Well, yes, but not for the right reasons — and not in a manner even remotely likely to convince her that this submission, out of the hundreds she will be perusing this week, is the one that will wow her boss. Yes, regardless of how good the writing might be.

Why? Look for yourself: could the agent possibly submit this manuscript to a publishing house in this typeface and on this oddly-colored paper? Would it stand a fighting chance if she did?

And if it doesn’t, does presenting the manuscript in this manner make sense at any stage of submission?

The answers to all three of those questions is a resounding “By Jove, no!” And that’s sad, considering that the book this title page covers is, lest we forget, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. The moral, should you care to know it:

broken-record7Even the best writing can be placed at a competitive disadvantage by unprofessional presentation. Standard format is the good writer’s friend, not her enemy.

Is all of that ambient clanking is a thousand writers’ hackles being raised? “But Anne,” outraged voices thunder, “aren’t you making Millicent out to be pretty darned shallow? Whenever I’ve heard agents and editors asked at conferences or on their blogs about whether cosmetic issues can get a manuscript rejected, they often disclaim the notion with scorn. I’ve even heard a few of them say that they don’t care about issues like typeface, spaces after periods and colons, or where the chapter title lies — and that strikes me as significant, as I’ve never, ever heard one say it was okay to let a query letter run longer than a single page. Isn’t it the writing all that matters in a submission, ultimately?”?

Again, yes and no, hackle-raisers. Yes, the writing matters — and no, it’s not all that matters.

Naturally, the writing matters most in a submission, with freshness, audience-appropriateness, marketability, and fit with the agent or editor reading it jostling for second place. Equally naturally, and something that I often point out, individual agents, editors, and even contest judges harbor individual preferences as well and have been known to express them at conferences. Or on their blogs, Twitter feeds, and over drinks at that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any literary conference in North America.

One person’s pet peeve, however, may not be another’s. Since few aspiring writers have access to the industry-specific information required to find out the preferences of every agent to whom they are submitting, adhering to standard format minimizes the probability of running afoul of unknown annoyance-triggers.

Then, too, adopting the norms of standard format and clinging to them like an unusually tenacious leech will also help you preserve your sanity throughout the often-protracted submission process, for the reason I mentioned in passing above — have you seen how many conflicting sets of ostensibly authoritative manuscript formatting rules are floating around out there?

Honestly, trying to apply every single one of the expressed opinions to your manuscript will drive you 100% nuts. Don’t even try. However, because personal (and genre) preferences do exist, it’s always worth a submitter’s time to double-check an agency or small publishing house’s submission guidelines, just in case they call for something wacky. That’s worth throwing another record on the machine, surely.

broken-record2If an agent or editor to whom you are submitting asks for something different, for heaven’s sake, give it to her. If, as is almost always the case, the guidelines don’t specify, keep the presentation unprovocative and professional so that your writing may shine without visual competition.

In other words, it’s only prudent to adhere to the strictures of standard format, rather than assuming, as so many aspiring writers do to their cost, that the writing is the only thing that matters.

Remember, where you stand depends on where you sit. It’s a matter of perspective. And from both Millicent and the aspiring writer’s perspective, taking the time to present writing professionally is genuinely worth it.

Admittedly, one does hear of the mythical isolated case of a kind, literature-loving agent has looked past bizarre formatting in order to see a potential client’s, well, potential. One also hears of isolated cases where a manuscript rife with spelling and grammatical errors gets picked up, or one that has relatively little chance of selling well in the current market being recognized for the work of genius it is and swept to bestsellerdom. The age of miracles has not entirely passed, apparently.

Have you ever noticed, though, how seldom a specific book title comes attached to those stories? Or, when they do, it turns out on closer examination that the writer in question roomed in college with a major agent, or is married to a senior editor at a large publishing house, or used to be a Monkee? If one happens to fall into such a category, one might well encounter an unusual leniency. Ditto if one happens already to be a household name.

Before anyone raises his hand, though, we’ve all heard offbeat How I Got Discovered Stories at conferences. But — and this is a BIG but — these cases get talked about because they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. (They also tend to have happened before the mid-1980s; agents used to take chances on long shots more often.) 9,999 times out of 10,000, though, a submission’s tumbling into any of the pitfalls we’ve been discussing will result in, if not instantaneous rejection, then rejection upon Millicent’s lighting upon the next problem in the manuscript.

Those pesky hackles are clacking again, aren’t they? “Okay,” the hackled concede, “I can understand how Millicent would be tempted to skip reading submissions presented like the last two examples, where she’s likely to strain her eyes. But if presentation is so darned important, why don’t aspiring writers hear about it more often at conferences, in articles about submission, or even just in discussions amongst ourselves?”

Excellent question, h-raisers. I can’t say for sure, of course, but it wouldn’t be going out too far on an interpretive limb to speculate that a sane, sensible individual with a reputation to protect might be slightly reluctant to stand up in front of 500 eager potential submitters and say, “Look, if you’re planning to submit a grimy photocopy of your book, or insist upon presenting it in 10-point type, or not indenting your paragraphs, just don’t bother to query me, okay?” Having once seen a well-meaning agent tell an indignant crowd that he only took query letters seriously if they came from writers he met at conferences (yes, really; there were many, many witnesses), I can tell you precisely what would happen if some honest soul did take this astounding step: instantly, 500 pens would scrawl on 500 programs, DO NOT QUERY THIS ONE; HE’S MEAN.

Which would rather defeat the agent’s purpose in coming to the conference to recruit new clients, would it not?

As a veteran teaches of writing and formatting classes, I can think of another reason that a speaker might want to be careful about such pronouncements: an agent or editor doesn’t have to speak at many conferences (or blog for very long) before recognizing that anything she says about submissions is likely to be repeated with the ?clat of a proverb, to borrow a phrase from Aunt Jane, for years to come amongst the writing community.

You might be surprised how often it happens. I’ve heard offhand comments made from the dais, or even jokes, being debated for hours in conference hallways, particularly if those comments happen to relate to the cosmetic aspects of querying and submission. 5-4 Supreme Court decisions are routinely discussed with less vim and vitriol. Some particularly vehement agents’ pronouncements have been more commented upon than St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

Okay, so that last is a slight exaggeration. My point, should you be interested, is that the very notion of from-the-horse’s-mouth rightness carries such a luster that such speakers are constantly in extreme danger of having everything they say quoted back to them as an inflexible rule.

Which is why, I must admit, I occasionally experience qualms about presenting the rules of standard format here at all. On the pro-regulation side, we are talking, after all, about an industry that both values creativity and considers submitting a book proposal in anything but a black folder dangerously radical. (Yes, really.) On the con side, literally nothing else I talk about here consistently raises as much writerly ire.

The very topic of manuscript presentation seems to be emotionally trying for a lot of writers — disproportionately so, from where Millicent is sitting. Tell an aspiring writer that his dialogue is turgid, or his pacing drags, or he’s left a necessary section out of his book proposal, and most of the time, he’ll be at least curious about why you think so. (If a bit defensive.) If you tell him that his protagonist’s sister is Ruth for the first 72 pages, and Ren?e thereafter, he might actually thank you.

Yet suggest to the same writer that he might be better off reformatting his manuscript to include such niceties as paragraph indentation or moving his page number to the slug line, and a good quarter of the time, he’ll look at you as though you’d just kicked his grandmother. Thrice.

Go figure, eh?

Presentation issues definitely do matter. Which is, again, not to say that the quality of the writing doesn’t. But — and again, this is a BIG but — as we’ve discussed, rejection decisions are more often than not made on page 1 of a submission. Sometimes even within the course of the first paragraph. If a manuscript is hard to read due to a funky typeface or odd spacing or just plain poor print quality, Millicent may just pass on reading it at all.

While these phenomena are, in fact, quite widely recognized as true, the person who announced them this baldly from the dais at a literary conference would swiftly find herself covered head to foot with flung tomatoes in twenty seconds flat. Metaphorically, at least. Which is why I’m going to keep saying it until I’m blue in the face and you die of boredom:

broken-record-150x150From the perspective of someone who reads manuscripts for a living, professional formatting is simply the least distracting way a book can possibly be presented. Adhering to the industry’s cosmetic expectations renders it more likely that an agent or editor will concentrate upon the beauty of the writing, not less.

They can’t fall in love with your good writing until they read it, can they? So don’t you want to do everything within your power to convince them that your manuscript is the one that deserves more than a cursory glance?

Of course you do. Instead of thinking of the rigors of standard format as a series of unimportant (or even silly) superficial choices, try regarding them as translating your calling card, a means of catching Millicent’s tired eye and informing her that this is a manuscript that should be taken seriously.

“Okay, Anne,” lovers of Bauhaus 93 sigh. “What fonts would be the least, you know, Millicent-provoking for me to use?”

I would highly recommend using either Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, both on the title page and in the manuscript. These are the standards of the industry, and thus the least likely to raise Millicent’s ever-knitted eyebrows. Like other strictures of standard format, there’s a pretty good reason for this one: from where she is sitting, word count estimation is always predicated upon one of these typefaces.

Why is the question of estimating relevant on a title page? Again, we must look to Millicent’s perspective: unlike word counts in articles or short stories, word counts in book manuscripts are generally estimated, not based upon the actual number of words. For short stories and articles, use the actual total.

Was that giant gust of wind that just knocked my desk over your collective gasp of astonishment? I’m not entirely surprised; a lot of aspiring writers are confused on this point. “But Anne,” they shout, and who can blame them? “My Word program will simply tell me how many words there are in the document. Since it’s so easy to be entirely accurate, why shouldn’t I be as specific as possible? Or, to put it another way, why would an agent or editor ask for the word count, then expect me to guess?”

Would you fling something at me if I said once again that this is a matter of perspective? From Millicent’s seat, the answer is pretty obvious: industry practices dictate how manuscripts are handled, not the whims of the fine folks at Microsoft. The Microsofties I know are sterling human beings to a man, but they’re hardly experts on the publishing industry’s requirements.

And really, why should they be? Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, just because Word is set up to allow certain things — giving you an exact word count, for instance, or access to 147 different fonts — doesn’t mean that the publishing industry wants writers to do things that way. (And if you doubt that, consider the doubled dash vs. the automatic emdash Word favors.) Word processing programs came into use long, long after standard format for manuscripts, after all; why should agents, editors, and Millicents allow computer programmers to dictate what strikes them as professional?

Perspective, people: which makes more sense, assuming that the word count on your title page will be read by Millicent — or Bill Gates?

I cannot, naturally, speak to Mssr. Gates’ views on the subject, but here is why Millicent would care on the estimation front. The Times family is estimated at 250 words/page; Courier at 200. So a 400-page manuscript in Times New Roman is estimated to be roughly 100,000 words if it’s in Times — something Millicent should be able to tell as soon as she claps eyes on the submission’s title page, right? — and 80,000 if it’s in Courier.

Wondering why anyone would estimate at all? Since word length vary, and because manuscripts shrink around 2/3rds in the transition to published book, the number of pages is actually a better measure of how much it will cost to print and bound the thing. So if your title page says that your baby is 86,250 words and it’s in Times New Roman, a pro will just assume that it’s 345 pages (345 x 250= 86,250) rather than flipping to the bottom of the stack of papers to check. If it’s in Courier, she would conclude that it is 431 pages — and that your math skills are not particularly good.

Now, in the world as we know it, a 400-page manuscript in TNR is usually closer to 115,000 words than 100,000; as any writer who has compared the estimated word count for her book with the total her word processing program so kindly provides, they tend to differ wildly. But word count, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: a novelist whose title page reported, accurately, that her 400-page novel was 115,000 words might well see it rejected out of hand on the grounds that it was too long.

Why? Well, math may not have been Millicent’s best subject, either (as one might expect, the inmates of agencies tend overwhelmingly to have been English majors), but she can do third-grade multiplication in her head: 115,000 words at 250 words/page would equal a 460-page manuscript. That’s quite a bit longer than editors tend to expect first novels in most genres to be these days; at around 450 pages, binding costs rise significantly.

In other words: next!

Boy, those hackles are getting a workout today. “But Anne, why would Millicent want to estimate at all when she has a submission in front of her? If she wants to know how long it is, why doesn’t she just flip to the last page and check the page number?”

I could give you a long song and dance about how much her wrists hurt from opening all those query envelopes all day, or how her secret midnight e-mail orgies have rendered pinching a torture. She has a hard job, truly. In practice, the answer is far less personal than practical: because the word count is right there on the title page.

Tell me, hackle-raisers: why should she doubt its accuracy? Unless, say, the title page were in a non-standard typeface like Helvetica, she’s going to assume that an aspiring writer familiar enough with standard format to include the word count on the title page would also know how to estimate it accurately.

I know, I know: from a writer’s perspective, that’s kind of a wacky assumption. But her chair boasts a different view than ours. Besides, how exactly could she manage to turn to page 400 of a manuscript, when her boss requested that the writer send only the first 50, without resorting to some pretty impressive maneuvering through time and space?

I’m aware that I’m running long today, but in the interest of clarity, let’s invest another few minutes in turning to the first page of the submission, to see how much of a difference font and typeface make at first glance. Here’s a correctly-formatted page 1 in Times New Roman. Just for giggles, I’m going to use that notorious editorial nightmare, the opening paragraphs of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

2 cities good

Now let’s take a peek at the same page, also correctly formatted, in Courier. Note how many fewer words per page it allows:

2 courier

Got both of those firmly imbedded in your brainpan? Good. Now format your first pages that way for the rest of your natural life.

Just kidding — you want to see why it’s a good idea, don’t you? Okay, take a gander at the same first page, not in standard manuscript format. See how many differences you can spot:

example for spotting

Fascinating how just a few small formatting changes can alter the presentation, isn’t it? As with our earlier title page examples, it’s exactly the same writing, but it just doesn’t look as professional. To Millicent, who reads hundreds of pages per day, the differences between the last three examples could not be clearer.

And yet, if we’re going to be honest about it, there were really very few deviations from standard format in the last example. For those of you playing at home, the typeface is Georgia; the chapter title is in the wrong place, and there isn’t a slug line. Also, the page is numbered in the wrong place — the default setting, incidentally, in many word processing programs.

In all probability, none of these infractions against the rules of standard format would strike our Millie as serious enough to cause her to toss a submission aside as soon as she noticed them. But when poor formatting is combined with literary experimentation — like, say, that paragraph-long opening sentence ol’ Charles managed to cough up — which do you think she is going to conclude, that Dickens is a writer who took the time to polish his craft, or that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing?

broken-record-150x150It’s never in your best interest as a writer to tempt a professional reader to draw the wrong conclusion about your devotion to your craft. Remember, where a manuscript stands depends upon where the reader sits.

Before any hackles start racing skyward again, I hasten to add: where the submitting writer sits often makes a difference to a reader’s perception, too. Her reception of that last example is very likely to be different before Dickens became a household name or after. Once he was established, he could get away with more.

Unless you happen already to be famous, though, I wouldn’t advise taking the risk. (And if you do happen to be famous, could I interest you in writing a back jacket blurb?)

In fairness to Millicent, it’s highly unlikely that it would even occur to an established Charles to deviate this markedly from standard format. Experience working with an agent or editor would discourage it. The longer you remain in the business, the more those little things will strike you as just, well, matters of right and wrong. As, fortunately or not, they do Millicent and her ilk.

Come to think of it, that sense of fitness may well be the reason that discussions of formatting tend to become so vitriol-stained. We all like to be right, and propriety is in the eye of the beholder. After all, each of us is most familiar with the view from her own chair.

Pulling back from one’s own perspective can be most helpful. There’s a reason that it’s called the bigger picture, people.

In that spirit, let’s take a longer view of our original photo, to situate ourselves:

sagrada familia ceiling

Substantially simpler to tell up from down now, isn’t it? Taking a broader perspective, you can see that the green light on the left is coming from a stained-glass window; on the left, there’s a decorative support beam. From the myopic tight shot, it was far less obvious that this was a cathedral.

Making sure your writing is framed properly can have a similar effect. Keep up the good work!

Hey, what happened to my comments — or to the last couple of months of posts, for that matter?

Oregon coast

My apologies on both counts, especially to those of you who posted comments on posts originally dated between March 22 and today. For reasons that defy human understanding, my site’s migration from one server to another has been more complicated and possibly more attenuated than traversing the Oregon Trail. Occasionally, things tumble out of the back of one’s covered wagon.

But my, the photos are pretty now, are they not?

I can — and shall — be digging March and April’s posts out of my backups and allowing them once again to be visible to here. Please do be patient about their reappearance in their respective archive list categories, as all of the coding has been lost. Also, I’m afraid that whatever demon toted off the original posts also purloined all of their attached comments. As nearly as I can tell, there’s no earthly way to resurrect them.

I’m quite distressed over that last part — there were some excellent questions those comments, along with what I would like to think were some pretty darned good answers. If you asked a question and had not yet seen the answer, or had simply presumed, as is logical for a blog, that the answer would be available to you as long as the blog took up web space, again, I’m sorry. If you would like to repost your questions, I’ll try to answer them again as quickly as I can.

On the bright side, I believe that’s the Pacific Ocean I see in the distance. Our long, hard journey is almost over. Keep up the good work!

Me and you and a boy? girl? dog? named Snafu

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Sorry about my recent slow rate of posting, campers; as the sharper-eyed among you may have noticed, we here at Author! Author! have been experiencing what the old television shows used to call euphemistically technical difficulties. Quite a bit of progress can be seen behind the scenes, I assure you, but it will be a little while before the full benefits will be visible from your side of the page. Mea culpa, and thanks for hanging in there.

I’ve been hesitant to keep pressing forward with our series-in-progress on manuscript formatting while the visual examples are still acting a bit squirrelly. Writers’ conference season is almost upon us, however, and proper formatting can make the difference between an enthusiastically-read post-pitch submission and one that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, picks up with trepidation, so I’d like to smuggle the standard format basics into everyone’s writing tool kit sooner rather than later. Let us press on unabashed, therefore.

When last we broached the subject, I showed how the first page of text does not, from a professional perspective, make an adequate substitute for a title page in a book manuscript — a demonstration that, if past is any prologue, may well have left some of you scraping your jaws off the floor. Don’t be too hard on yourself, if so: most first-time submitters simply assume that if a manuscript does include a title page — and a hefty majority of submissions arrive without one — it should be a replica of a hoped-for book cover. That’s what they’ve seen in bookstores (ask your grandparents, children), so that must be what looks professional to the professionals, right?

As I hope those of you who have been following his series have already shouted: heavens, no. Standard format for manuscripts does not resemble what’s on the printed page of a published book in many respects.

You’d be surprised at how many aspiring writers are not aware of that, judging by how many single-spaced, non-indented, photo-heavy submissions turn up at agencies. Even the more industry-savvy rookies — the ones who have taken the time to learn that book manuscripts must be double spaced, contain indented paragraphs, be printed on one side of the page, etc. — are frequently unaware that that in traditional publishing circles, the author typically has very little say over what does and does not grace the cover.

Millicent is quite cognizant of that fact, however; experience watching books travel the often bumpy road from initial concept to publication have shown her that cover art is almost invariably the publishing house’s choice. So is pretty much everything on the dust jacket, including the back jacket copy, the book’s typeface, and every other cosmetic consideration. So when she opens requested materials to find something like this:

she sees not a manuscript perfectly ready for publication — that’s what some of you, thought, right? — but evidence that the sender does not understand the difference between a published book and a manuscript. At minimum, this admittedly rather pretty top page demonstrates that the writer does not understand that throughout the publication process, the title page of a manuscript is not just its top cover.

Nor is it merely the shouted-out declaration of the book’s title and who wrote it, another popular choice in submissions. What possible practical purpose could a title page like this serve at the submission stage?

Not much doubt about what it’s called or who wrote it, true, and the typeface certainly blares those two facts with gratifying gusto, but how precisely does this (unusually small, for some reason best known to the writer) sheet of paper fulfill any of the functions the agent or small publisher to whom it was submitted might need it to serve? How, in fact, is it a better title page than the most common of all, the following?

No, your eyes are not deceiving you: the single most popular title page option in manuscript submissions is none. It’s an especially common omission in e-mailed submissions. Half the time, e-mail submitters don’t even include a cover letter; they just attach the requested number of pages. “I’ve been asked to send this,” title page-eschewers murmur, doubtless to convince themselves, “so the agency has to know who I am. Besides, my name and the title are in the slug line — that’s the writer’s name and title in the upper right margin of the page, should anyone have been wondering. Surely, that’s enough to identify the manuscript.”

Well, it might be, if Millicent were fond of guessing games, but hands up, anyone who seriously believes that agents ask to see so few manuscripts in any given year based upon the tens of thousands of queries they receive that any requested materials must be instantly recognizable not only to their weary peepers, but to the entire staffs of their agencies. Keep those hands up if you also cling to the writer-flattering notion that agents and editors hearing pitches at conference find so few of them convincing that they could easily identify both book and writer by the storyline alone.

Found better uses for your hands, did you? Glad to hear it. But if presenting a fantasy book cover isn’t the point of including a title page, and if its main goal is not to shout that you — yes, YOU — managed to pull off the quite impressive achievement of writing an entire book or book proposal, what meaning is this poor, misunderstood page supposed to convey to Millicent?

Its mission is not particularly romantic, I’m afraid: a properly-formatted title page is simply a quiet, practical piece of paper, containing a specific set of marketing information any agent or editor would need in order to bring your book to publication. If Millicent doesn’t spot that information as soon as she claps eyes on the pages her boss, the agent of your dreams, asked you to send, her first impression of your submission will be that you’ve made her life a little harder.

Call me zany, but I doubt that was Ann Gardiner’s goal when she put all of that effort into designing that pretty faux book cover and popped it into the envelope with her first 50 pages. I would be surprised if Ama Narcissist actively desired to make it difficult for an agent who fell in love with her writing to contact her. And I would be downright flabbergasted if the e-mailing submitter that just didn’t think to include a title page with his Word document hadn’t just assumed that Millicent keeps every single one of the thousands of e-mails her agency receives in any given week in a special file, all ready to be leafed through so if her boss wants to see more of the manuscript, she can waste 17 hours trying to track down the sender’s original e-mailed query. Because all that’s required to respond to an e-mailed submission is to hit REPLY, right?

Again: heavens, no. Any reasonably established agency may be relied upon to be juggling far, far too many submissions at any given time.

Do those inarticulate gasps of frustration mean that some of you have under-labeled manuscripts in circulation at this very moment, or merely that you have questions? “But Anne,” hyperventilating writers the English-speaking world over gasp, “I’m an inveterate reader of agency and small publishing houses’ submission guidelines, and they rarely state a preference for including a title page. What gives?”

What gives, my air-deprived friends, is that it’s actually pretty uncommon for submission guidelines to get down to the nitty-gritty of page formatting. As much as the strictures of standard format may seem new and strange to an aspiring writer confronting them for the first time, it’s just how the publishing industry expects professional book writing to be presented. A title page is so presumed to be part of a properly-formatted manuscript that many submission guidelines might not bother to mention it at all.

Which may be why, in practice, submitting without a title page is far more common than including one, especially for electronic submissions. This presentation choice is particularly common for contest entries, perhaps because contest rules seldom come right out and say, “Hey, buddy, include a title page, why doncha?” — and they virtually never say, “Hey, buddy, don’t bother with a title page, because we don’t need it.” Instead, they usually just ask entrants to include certain information with their entries: the category the writer is entering, perhaps, with contact information on a separate sheet of paper.

Which has, you may be interested to hear, a name amongst those who handle manuscripts for a living. It’s called, if memory serves, a title page.

Ah, a forest of hands has sprouted in the air. “But Anne,” murmur those of you who currently have submissions floating around out there without your contact information attached, “I’d like to go back to that part about the expectation that a manuscript should include a title page being so widespread that a pro putting together submission guidelines might not even think to bring it up. Assuming that pretty much everyone else whose submission will land on Millicent’s desk on the same day as mine was in the dark about this as I was until I read your recent fine-yet-sleep-disturbing post, should I even worry about not having included a title page? I mean, if Millie were going to reject manuscripts on this basis alone, she’d be a non-stop rejection machine.”

Of course, she isn’t a non-stop rejection machine. She’s a virtually non-stop rejection machine. She genuinely gets excited about quite a few submissions.

But that wasn’t really the crux of your question, was it, worried submitters? You’re quite right that this omission is too common to be an instant-rejection offense at most agencies, despite the fact that including it renders it far, far easier for the agent of your dreams to contact you after he has fallen in love with your writing. However, any deviation from standard format on page 1 — or, in the case of the title page, before page 1 — will make a manuscript look less professional to someone who reads submissions day in, day out. It lowers expectations about what is to follow.

To gain a better a sense of why, let’s revisit a couple of our examples from earlier in this series. Welcome back, R.Q. Snafu and Faux Pas. See if you can spot where they went astray.

While opening pages like these do indeed include the requisite information Millicent or her boss would need to contact the author (although Faux Pas’ pulls it off it better, by including more means of contact), cramming all of it onto the first page of text doesn’t really achieve anything but saving a piece of paper, does it? What precisely would be the point of that? This tactic wouldn’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 last three images indelibly burned into your cranium? Excellent. Now weigh the probability that someone who reads as many manuscripts per day as Millicent — or her boss, or the editor to whom her boss likes to sell books — would not notice a fairly substantial difference in the presentation.

Exactly. Now assess the likelihood of that perception’s coloring any subsequent reading of the manuscript in question.

The answers are kind of obvious once you’ve seen the difference, are they not? Trust me, Millicent will have seen the difference thousands of times.

Again, I see many raised hands out there in the ether. “But Anne,” upright individuals the globe over protest, “I get that including all of the information in that last example would render it simpler for a Millicent who fell in love with the first three chapters of MADAME BOVARY to contact Mssr. Flaubert to ask for the rest of the manuscript. I’m not averse to making that part of her job as easy as humanly possible. However, I don’t quite understand why my presentation of that array of facts need be quite so visually boring. Wouldn’t my manuscript be more memorable — and thus enjoy a competitive advantage — if the title page were unique?”

At the risk of damaging your tender eardrums, HEAVENS, no! To folks who handle book manuscripts for a living, a title page is most emphatically not the proper place for individual artistic expression; it’s the place to — stop me if you’ve heard this before — provide them with specific information necessary for dealing with a submission.

Anything else is, in a word, distracting. To gain a sense of why, let’s take a gander at another type of title page Millicent sees with great frequency — one that contains all of the right information, but is so unprofessionally formatted that the care with which the writer followed the content rules gets entirely subsumed in the visuals.

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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, what’s the point of placing it here? 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. She is likely to emit a well-bred little scream when she opens the entry envelope.)

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. Like every other page in the manuscript, the title page should be printed in black ink on white paper. No exceptions.

Help yourself to a third gold star out of petty cash if you also caught that her contact information should not have been centered. Pin a great big blue ribbon on yourself, too, if you 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.

Feel free to chant it with me, axiom-lovers: 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. (Why? Well, since the title page is generally the first part of an entry Mehitabel sees, not adhering to the rules there can knock an otherwise promising submission out of finalist consideration before she has a chance to read the first line of text. Contest rules exist for a reason, you know.)

You may place the title — and only the title — in boldface if you like, but that’s about as far as it’s safe to venture on the funkiness scale. Do not, I beg you, give in to the temptation of playing with the typeface. No matter how cool your title page looks with 24-point type, resist the urge, because Millicent will be able to tell from across the room if you didn’t.

Don’t believe 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 the last example included both a slug line and a page number in the bottom right corner, snag yourself yet another gold star. 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 should not be formatted as if it were.

While I’m on a boldface kick, title pages should not 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. 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. Who knew so many of them could tap-dance?

While you’ve got those title pages firmly imprinted upon your brainpan, let me briefly address a question from incisive reader Lucy, one of many aspiring writers enamored of the clean, classic look of initials on a book cover. As you may have noticed, our pall Snafu shares the same preference. Lucy wondered if other naming choices might raise other distracting thoughts.

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. A good 90% of literary fiction readers (and agents, and editors) have two X chromosomes — and some of them have been known to prefer reading books by Susans rather than Roberts.

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, Sue.

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Even better, why not publish under a name you actually like instead? That’ll show your Susan-loving parents, Norm.

I just ruffled a few feathers out there, didn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear many 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 people are probably going to leap to a conclusion about your sex regardless, at least if you happen to be writing in a book category that tends to be marketed more to one sex than another. In most fiction and pretty much all nonfiction categories, Millicent’s first response upon seeing initials on a title page, especially if neither the By part and the contact information contain a first name, will often be, “Oh, this is a female writer who doesn’t want to be identified as one,” rather than “Gee, I wonder who this intriguing person without a first name is. I’m just going to leap right into this manuscript with no gender-based expectations at all.”

Why might young Millie have this reaction — and her older boss be even more likely to respond this way? 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 first-person classics of estrogen-fueled wantonness (avert your eyes, children) as THE HAPPY HOOKER, COFFEE, TEA, OR ME? and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. Even during periods when some of the most popular and respected novelists have been women (and there have been quite a few such periods in the history of English and American 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 in the 19th century, many readers would have just assumed S. Smith the novelist was a nice lady named Susan. (It’s probably where your parents got the idea to christen you that, Norman.) Or those readers would have assumed that you were an Oxford don writing scurrilous fiction that might have shocked your colleagues on the side. That avocation has historically resulted in fewer book readers naming their children Susan, though.

That being said, an author’s pen name is ultimately up to the author. The choice to identify yourself with initials or not is entirely up to you — or, more accurately, to you and your agent, you and your editor, and you and your future publisher’s marketing department. Some sets of initials look cooler than others 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. The better to check if it would look good on a book jacket, my dear. 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.

If I had preferred to publish under A. Mini, though, I doubt anyone but my father would have strenuously objected. Certainly not at the submission stage — when, for some reason that mystifies Millicents, many aspiring writers seem to believe that the question of pen name must be settled for good. It doesn’t. Should you already be absolutely certain that you would prefer to go by your initials, rather than your given name, feel free to identify yourself that way on your title page.

For convenience’s sake, however, it’s customary for the contact information to list the name one prefers an agent to ask to speak to on the telephone.

Which brings us back to Lucy’s trenchant question: 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.? S/he doesn’t, at least on the title page, or indeed in the query letter: that’s a matter for subsequent conversation with one’s agent. These days, though, it’s unlikely that the agent who has just fallen in love with the writer of our last example would address a potential client so formally: the e-mail or phone call offering representation would probably begin Dear Norman.

At worst, an agent reading in a hurry might call and ask for Ms. Unfortunate. But you can live with that, can’t you, Susan?

Besides, unless a writer’s gender (or sex, for that matter) 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 sex. If a writer is genuinely worried about it, s/he could always embrace Norman’s strategy above, and use a more gender-definite middle name in the contact information.

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 will you while they’re doing it. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

More concrete examples of properly and improperly formatted manuscripts follow next time. Keep those questions coming, and as always, keep up the good work!

Handwritten manuscripts, profanity in queries, and other phenomena that give Millicent pause

I had meant to devote my next post to showing you fine people more examples of title pages done right — and done wrong, so we could discuss the difference. Why invest the time and energy in generating both, you ask? Clearer understanding, mostly. Oh, I know that I could just slap up a single properly-formatted title page and walk away, pleased with myself for having provided guidance to writers submitting to agencies and small publishing houses; I could also, as some other blogs devoted to helping aspiring writers do, post readers’ own pages and critique them. In my long experience working with writers, established and aspiring both, however, I’ve found that talking through an array of positive and negative examples yields better results.

In no area of advice is this more strongly the case than in manuscript formatting. Since very few aspiring writers have had the opportunity to see a manuscript in circulation by a major agency close up, it can be quite difficult to tell whether one is following the rules — if, indeed, the submitter is aware that there are rules. Many are not. By presenting my readers with a plethora of practical examples and ample discussion, I hope to help writers new to the game avoid falling into pitfalls they might not otherwise know exist. It also enables those who have never enjoyed the inestimable advantage of having read manuscripts or contest entries on a daily basis to see first-hand just how much submission quality varies, even amongst the best-written specimens.

I sense some finely-tuned authorial antennae waving out there. Yes, novelists and other aficionados of character development?

“Is there a reason that you’re explaining this to us, Anne? Surely, by the middle of a series devoted to explaining the requirements of standard format for book manuscripts, any reader paying even the vaguest attention could be safely relied upon to have picked up on your fondness for compare-and-contrast exercises aimed at helping us develop our collective sense of what will and will not strike our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, as professional means of presenting good writing. Heck, that would be obvious to anyone taking a casual scroll through your blog. So am I correct in picking up a subtext here?”

Well spotted, close observers of human nature: I am in fact leading up to something. And while anyone who works with manuscripts for a living could tell you that what I shall be spending the rest of this post discussing is a pitfall into which eager aspiring writers stumble all the time, sometimes at serious cost to themselves, I’m afraid that explaining what that common trap is and how to negotiate one’s way around it will require sharing an example or two that are far from pretty.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written an industry etiquette post. I normally would not interrupt a series in progress in order to introduce one, but for the last six months or so, I, others who write online advice for writers, and even the excellent individuals toiling away in agencies have been seeing an uptick in a particular type of approach from aspiring writers. Admittedly, it’s always been common enough to drive the burn-out rate for writing gurus sky-high — in this line of endeavor, 7 1/2 years makes me a great-grandmother — yet anytime those of us still cranking out the posts start complaining about the same thing at the same time, it’s worth noting.

What’s the phenomenon? you ask with bated breath. Ah, I could tell you, but it would be easier to get why those of us behind the book scenes have been buzzing about it if I showed you. Fortunately — for discussion purposes, if not for me personally — yesterday, I received a sterling example of the breed of missives those of us in the profession often receive from total strangers, demanding attention and assistance for their writing endeavors.

Before I reveal yesterday’s communiqué in all of its glory, let’s take a moment to talk about how a savvy writer might want to go about alerting a publishing professional to the existence and many strong points of his or her book. It’s not an especially well-kept secret that, in this business, there are not all that many polite ways to go about it. If one is seeking to get a book published with a traditional large or mid-sized publishing house, one can only do so through an agency. If one is seeking an agent for that purpose, one either writes a 1-page query letter containing a specific set of information about the book or registers for a writers’ conference featuring formal pitching sessions to give at most a 2-minute description. If one wishes to work with a small publisher, one takes the time to find out what that particular publisher’s submission requirements are, then adheres to them through storm and tempest.

That’s it. Any other form of approach virtually always results in rejection. on general principle.

Why? Well, think about it: if you were an agent or editor, with which kind of writer would you prefer to work — one who has made the effort to learn the rules and follow them courteously, or one whose blustering demand for attention informs you right off the bat that, at minimum, you’re going to have to sit this writer down and explain that this is a business in which politeness counts?

Aspiring writers, especially those faced with the daunting task of contacting one of us for the first time, often find these simple strictures monumentally frustrating, if not downright perplexing. Many more regard industry etiquette as counterintuitive — or so we much surmise from the fact that the pros constantly find themselves on the receiving end of telephone calls from writers of whom they have never heard. Both agencies and publishing houses with well-advertised no unsolicited manuscripts, please policies get thousands every year. Although all of the major U.S. publishing houses have only accepted agented manuscripts for quite some time, the virtually complete disappearance of the slush pile seems not to have made the national news, if you catch my drift.

Some of you are shifting uncomfortably in your chairs, I notice. “But Anne,” a few of you on the cusp of approaching the pros for the first time murmur, “I understand that the rules of querying and submission might make life easier for agents and editors, but I’m excited about my book! I’ve worked really hard on it, and I’m impatient to see it in print. If it’s the next bestseller, I would think they would want to snap it up as quickly as possible. If it’s well-written, why would anyone in a position to publish it care how I manage to get the manuscript under their noses?”

Several reasons, actually, and very practical ones. First — and the one that most astonishes the pros that anxious aspiring writers so often don’t seem to take into consideration — literally millions of people write books every year. Many, if not most, are pretty excited when they finish them. So from the publishing world’s perspective, while it’s completely understandable, charming, and even potentially a marketing plus that a particular writer is full of vim about placing his book in front of an admiring public, it’s not a rare enough recommendation to justify tossing the rules out the window.

Second, while it pains me to say this, a writer is not always the best judge of her own book’s market-readiness; even if she were, as the industry truism goes, an author’s always the least credible reviewer of her own book. You would never know that, though, from how frequently Millicent hears from writers absolutely convinced that their efforts are uniquely qualified to grace the bestseller lists. Although the once-ubiquitous it’s a natural for Oprah! has mostly fallen out of currency, this kind of hard sell remains a not-uncommon opening for a query:

My novel, Premise Lifted from a Recent Movie, is sure to be as popular as The Da Vinci Code. Beautifully written and gripping, it will bowl readers over. You’ll be sorry if you miss this one!

While it’s not completely beyond belief that this writer’s self-assessment is correct, agents and editors tend to prefer to judge manuscripts themselves. Why? Well, since so many aspiring writers begin approaching agents and publishing houses practically the instant they polish off a first draft, it’s actually pretty common for even quite well-written manuscripts with terrific premises to arrive still needing quite a bit of revision. Millicent remains perpetually astonished, for instance, at how few submitters seem to take the time to spell- and/or grammar-check their work, much less to proofread it for flow and clarity.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes: any reputable agency, much less good small publishing house or well-known literary competition, will receive enough well-written, perfectly clean manuscripts — the industry’s term for pages free of typos, dropped words, protagonists’ sisters named Audrey for three the first three chapters and Andrea thereafter, etc. — not to have to worry about rejecting those that are not quite up to that level of sheen. From an aspiring writer’s perspective, it’s an unfortunate fact of recent literary history that the rise of the personal computer has caused the sheer number of queries and submissions to increase astronomically, rendering it impossible for even the most sleep-sacrificing professional reader to read more than a small fraction of the manuscripts eagerly thrust in his general direction.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, any pro with more than a few months’ worth of screening experience or writing contest judging will be aware that a super-confident writer does not necessarily come bearing a manuscript that will take the literary world by storm. Indeed, one of the reasons that the query above would be rejected on sight is that supreme confidence can be an indicator that the writer in question simply isn’t all that familiar with the current book market or how books are sold. That reference to The Da Vinci Code all by itself would automatically raise Millicent’s delicate eyebrows: in publishing circles, only books released within the past five years are considered part of the current market.

Then, too, since the kind of hard sell we saw above has been a notorious agents’ pet peeve for a couple of decades now, the very fact that an aspiring writer would use it could be construed — and generally is — as evidence that she’s not done much homework on how books actually get published. The popular notion that a good book will automatically and more or less instantly attract agents’ and editors’ attention is not an accurate reflection of current publishing realities, after all. (If that comes as a surprise to you, you might want to invest a little time in reading through the posts under the aptly-named START WITH THESE POSTS IF YOU ARE BRAND-NEW TO PUBLISHING category at the top of the archive list at right.)

Why might giving the impression that one isn’t overly familiar with the proverbial ropes prove a disadvantage in a first approach to a pro? Those of you who have been following my recent series on manuscript formatting already know the answer, right? It’s less time-consuming to work with a writer to whom the ropes are already a friendly medium. And honestly, it’s not that unreasonable for Millicent to presume that if our querier above does not know that boasting about a book is not what a query is for, she might also be unaware that, say, a book manuscript should be formatted in a particular way. Or that it’s now routinely expected that since submissions must arrive at publishing houses completely clean, savvy writers will submit them to agencies already scanned for errors.

It’s not as though a busy agent would have time to reformat or proofread a new client’s work before submitting it to an editor, right? Right? Do those glazed eyes mean some of you are in shock?

I can’t say as I blame you — when the first few agencies began recommending in their submission guidelines the now rather common advice that potential clients not only proofread their manuscripts carefully, but run them by a freelance editor before even considering approaching an agent, the collective moan that rose from the admirable, hard-working aspiring writers who routinely check each and every agency’s website before submitting positively rent the cosmos in twain. It can be a big shock to a writer new to querying and submission just how fierce the competition is to land one of the very scarce new client spots on a well-established agent’s client list.

“But I wrote a good book!” they wail, and with reason. “Why does landing an agent and getting published have to be so hard?”

The aforementioned competition, mostly: it gives agencies, publishing houses, literary contests, and even good freelance editors quite a bit of incentive to read as critically as possible. Lest we forget, most queries and requested materials are not read in their entirety — as we’ve discussed, most submissions get rejected on page 1, and most queries get slipped into the no, thank you pile before the end of their opening paragraphs.

Which makes sense, right? If the opening lines contain typos, clich?s, or any of the other unfortunately common first-approach faux pas, Millicent generally just stops reading. She assumes, rightly or wrongly, that what hits her eyes initially is an accurate representation of what is to follow. That’s the norm for agents, editors, and contest judges, too: if the third paragraph of page 1 is grammatically shaky, or if the writing is unclear, it’s taken for granted that Paragraph #3 will not be the only one that could use some additional work.

That tends to come as a surprise to many, if not most, aspiring writers. The rather endearing expectation that good writing will be read with a charitable eye often crashes straight into the reality of how many queries, submissions, and/or contest entries a pro has to read in a day. Millicent can only judge writing by what’s in front of her, after all. No matter how lovely the prose may be on page 56, or how stunning the imagery on page 312, if page 1 isn’t sufficiently polished, she’s going to make up her mind before she has a chance to admire what may come later in the book.

The same logic applies to the tone and consideration of the initial approach. If a writer observes the prevailing norms of publishing world etiquette — by, say, e-mailing a query rather than cold-calling the agent or adhering to a small publisher’s posted requirements to send a query containing specific pieces of information about the book instead of just popping an unsolicited book proposal into the mail and hoping for the best — then it’s reasonable to project that level of consideration onto any subsequent relationship, right? If, on the other hand, a writer first contacts the pro by non-standard means or, sacre bleu!, impolitely, it wouldn’t really make sense to expect rigorous rule-adherence or courtesy down the road, would it?

Oh, should I have warned you to sit down before I sprung that one?

Like most people, I suspect, agents, editors, and the people who work with them tend to prefer to devote their efforts to those who will be treat them with respect. This is a business positively stuffed to the gills with nice people. Although it may be difficult to discern from the perspective of a writer trying to break into print, most professional readers are quite aware that they are dealing with writers’ dreams — and do their best to handle them gently.

That’s why, incidentally, so many agencies and publishing houses employ kindly-worded form-letter rejections. More often than not, those sets of vague platitudes like I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this, we regret to say that this book doesn’t meet our needs at this time, or I don’t think I can sell this in the current market are less attempts at explanation than efforts to spare feelings.

I know, I know: that’s not what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such a communication. It can be maddening not to know for sure why a query didn’t wow Millicent, or whether a submission stumbled on page 1 or page 221; being given a specific rejection reason could help one improve one’s efforts next time.

What the pros know from long, hard experience, though, and what aspiring writers may not consider, is that some rejection recipients will regard any explicitly-cited reason to turn down the book as an invitation to argue the matter further. This is an especially common reaction for conference pitchers, alas: first-time successful pitchers sometimes mistake polite professional friendliness and enthusiasm for a promising book concept for the beginning of a friendship. Or confuse “Gee, I’d like to read that — why don’t you send me the first 50 pages?” with an implicit promise of representation and/or publication.

From an agent or editor’s point of view, issuing a rejection, however regretfully, is intended to end the conversation about the book, not to prolong it. If they want you to revise and resubmit, trust me, they won’t be shy about telling you.

You may also take my word for it that no matter how excellent your case may be that s/he is in fact the perfect person to handle your book, how completely viable your plan may be to tweak the manuscript so s/he will fall in love with your protagonist, or how otherwise estimable your argument that this is indeed the next The Da Vinci Code may be, trying to talk your book into acceptance will strike the rejecter as rude. It’s just not done.

And in all probability, it won’t even be read. The agency may even have established a policy against it.

Don’t want to believe that? Completely understandable, from a writer’s point of view. An agent or editor wouldn’t have to engage in many correspondences like the following, however, to embrace such a policy with vim.

Dear Tyrone,
Thanks so much for letting me read your book proposal for a Western how-to, Log Cabin Beautiful: Arranging a Home on the Range. I’m afraid, however, that as intriguing as this book concept is, I would have a hard time convincing editors that there’s a large audience waiting for it. At best, this book would likely appeal only to a niche market.

Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

Hawkeye McBestsellerspotter
Picky and Pickier Literary Management

Dear Hawkeye,
I’ve received your rejection for Log Cabin Beautiful, and I must say, I’m astonished. Perhaps living in New York has blunted your sense of just how many log cabin dwellers there actually are? It’s hardly an urban phenomenon.

Please find enclosed 27 pages of statistics on the new log cabin movement. I’m returning my proposal to you, so you may have it handy if you reconsider.

Please do. I really did pour my heart into this book.

Sincerely,
Tyrone T. Umbleweeds

Tyrone —

I’m returning both your proposal and the accompanying startling array of supporting documentation with this letter. I’m sorry, but your book just doesn’t meet our needs at this time.

Hawkeye McBestsellerspotter
Picky and Pickier Literary Management

Dear Hawkeye,
Perhaps you didn’t really get my book’s concept. You see…
{Five pages of impassioned explanation and pleading.}
Won’t you give it a chance? Please?

Sincerely,
Tyrone T. Umbleweeds

{No response}

Dear Hawkeye,
Sorry for contacting you via e-mail, but my last letter to you seems to have gone astray. To continue our discussion of my book…

Time-consuming, isn’t it? Not to mention frustrating for poor Hawkeye. And in all probability, this is one of the nicer post-rejection arguments she’s had this month.

Just don’t do it. Quibbling won’t change a no into a yes, and believe me, the last thing any querier wants to be is the hero of the cautionary tale Hawkeye tells at writers’ conferences.

Should I be alarmed by how pleased some of you look? “But this is wonderful, Anne,” a tenacious few murmur. “Hawkeye answered. That must mean that she read Tyrone’s pleas, doesn’t it? And if she read them, there must have been some chance that she could have been convinced by them, right?”

Not necessarily, on that first point — and no on the second. Before any of you who happen to be particularly gifted at debate get your hopes up, it’s exceedingly rare that an agent would even glance at a follow-up letter or e-mail. They wouldn’t want to be confronted by the much more usual post-rejection response, which tends to open something like this:

Dear Idiot —
What the {profanity deleted} do you mean, you just didn’t fall in love with my book? Did you even bother to read it, you {profanity deleted} literature-hater? I’ll bet you wouldn’t know a good book if it bit you on the {profanity deleted}

I’ll spare you the rest, but you get the picture, right? For every 1, 100, or 10,000 writers that take rejection in respectful silence, there are at least a couple who feel the need to vent their spleen. And, amazingly enough, they almost always sign their flame-mails.

Yes, really. I guess it doesn’t occur to them that people move around a lot in publishing circles. Today’s rejecting Millicent might well be tomorrow’s agent — or sitting in an editorial meeting next to an editor who wants to acquire their books the year after that.

The sad thing is, the very notion that manners might count doesn’t seem to occur to quite a few people. Perhaps that’s not entirely astonishing, given how firmly many aspiring writers reject the notion that, as I like to point out early and often, every single syllable a writer sends to anyone even vaguely affiliated with publishing will be considered a writing sample. Those who express their desires and requests in polite, conventional terms tend to get much better responses than those who do, well, anything else.

Even sadder: as anyone in the habit of receiving requests from aspiring writers could tell you, the senders sometimes don’t seem to understand that just because a certain type of phrasing or vocabulary is acceptable in social circles or on television doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be appropriate when trying to interest a publishing professional in one’s book. You wouldn’t believe how often the Millicent working for Hawkeye opens queries like this:

Hey, Hawkeye —

Since you claim on your website to be looking for literary-voiced women’s fiction focusing on strong protagonists facing offbeat challenges, why don’t you do yourself a favor and read my book, A Forceful Female Confronts Wackiness? It’s really cool, and I know you and your buddies at the agency will like it.

Millicent stopped reading just after that startlingly informal salutation, by the way. You can see that the tone is also askew thereafter, though, right? It’s the way someone might address a longtime friend, not a total stranger. And not a friend one particularly liked, apparently: what’s up with that snide since you claim… part? What could the querier possibly hope to gain by implying that Ms. McBestsellerspotter is being insincere in expressing her literary preferences?

Why, yes, it’s possible that the querier didn’t mean to imply any such thing, now that you mention it. Had I mentioned that Millicent can only judge a writer by what’s actually on the page in front of her, and that every single syllable a writer passes under a professional reader’s nose will be read as a writing sample?

What do I need to do, embroider it on a pillow?

I sense a certain amount of bemused disbelief out there. “Oh, come on, Anne,” those that pride themselves on the graceful phrasing of even their most hastily tossed-off e-mails observe. “Surely, addressing someone in a position to help get one’s book published this informally is practically unheard-of. I could see it — maybe — if the book in question was written in the same chatty voice as that query, but even then, I would assume that most writers would be too fearful of offending an agent like Hawkeye to approach her like this.”

Oh, you’d be surprised. Agents and editors who are habitually nice to writers at conferences routinely receive e-mails just like this. So do most of us who offer online advice, as it happens, particularly if we blog in a friendly, writer-sympathetic, and/or funny voices.

It is precisely because I am friendly and sympathetic to the struggles of aspiring writers that I am reproducing yesterday’s e-mail: I could give you made-up examples until the proverbial cows came home, but until one has actually seen a real, live specimen of this exceedingly common type of ill-considered approach, it can be rather hard to understand why someone who receives a lot of them might stop reading them after just a couple of lines. Or — I told you this wasn’t going to be pretty — why so many literature-loving, writer-empathizing folks in the biz eventually just give up on being nice about sharing their professional insights at all.

Naturally, I’ve changed name, title, and everything else that might allow anyone who might conceivably help the sender of this astonishing letter get published, but otherwise, our correspondence remains exactly as I first saw it. To maximize its usefulness as an example, though, I shall stop periodically to comment on where the sender’s message seems to have gone awry and how the same information could have been presented in a more publishing world-appropriate manner.

Heya Anne;

Okay, let’s stop here, and not merely because a semicolon is an odd choice in a salutation (the usual options are a comma, colon, or dash). It would have given most professional readers pause, too, not to see the necessary direct address comma: were heya actually a word, Heya, Anne would have been the correct punctuation.

Can you imagine Hawkeye or Millicent’s facial expressions, though, upon catching sight of a query opening this informally? True, I write a chatty blog, and the disembodied voices I choose to attribute to my readers do routinely address me in posts as Anne, but honestly, I’ve never met the sender before. A more conventional — and polite — salutation would have been nice.

This early in the e-mail, though, I’m willing to assume what Hawkeye or Millicent would not: “Frank” is trying to be funny. I read on.

I’ve drafted a 30,000 word treatise on {currently highly controversial political topic}. I call it Main Title-Reference to Similarly Themed Bestseller from the Late 1980s.

I’m going to stop us again. Treatise is an strange word in this context, but that’s not what would give a professional reader pause here. 30,000 words is quite a bit shorter than most political books; it’s really closer to a pamphlet. It’s also about a quarter of the length of the bestseller referenced here — which was written by a former professor of mine, as it happens, just before I took a couple of seminars with him in graduate school. So, unfortunately for Frank, he’s making this argument to someone who heard over a year’s worth of complaints by the author of the other work about how often his title got recycled.

Surprised at the coincidence? Don’t be. For decades, going into publishing has been a well-trodden path for those with graduate degrees (or partially-completed graduate degrees) who decide not to become professors. Or when professor jobs become scarce. Or when universities decide that it’s cheaper to replace retiring faculty with poorly-paid lecturers, rather than with, say, faculty.

But I digress. More to our current point, this section contains a formatting problem: the hyphen used as a dash in the title would be incorrect in standard format for manuscripts, would it not? What was I saying about Millicent’s tendency to extrapolate an entire manuscript’s formatting faux pas from a slight stumble like this?

If you’ve been murmuring, “My, that’s a lot of reaction to just a few lines of an e-mail,” congratulations. You’re gaining a sense of just how closely professional readers observe every single syllable of every single piece of writing you send them. Speaking of which, let’s move on with our missive-in-progress.

It is not a rant or a historical narrative but a polemic attempt to change the rhetoric.

Sorry to have to stop us again so soon, but just so everyone knows, telling a professional reader that a manuscript is not a rant will automatically raise the suspicion that it is a rant. That’s pretty much the reaction that non-professional readers have to statements like this, too, come to think of it. Just human nature, I’m afraid.

Also, note the non-standard use of polemic. Usually, it means an aggressive attack upon somebody else’s theories. It would have been helpful if Frank had mentioned whose. Pressing on…

Scholarly in tone and temper is how it is presented but metaphors, similes, enthymemes, as well as personal observation and experiences are liberally used.

I’m rather glad that Frank decided to tell, rather than show, the “tone and temper” of his book, because talking about the language in which a manuscript is written is an exceedingly common querying mistake. A book description should aim at informing the professional reader what the book is about, not the kind of linguistic tricks the author has used to tell the tale. Think about it: why should Millicent (or I, for that matter) care that Frank is fond of metaphors, similes, or aphorisms, except insofar as they work in the manuscript itself? Wouldn’t the best — indeed, only — way to demonstrate that they do work be to show them in the writing?

Speaking of demonstrating authorial intentions, as a group, professional readers tend to be suspicious when a book description says the manuscript is written in a style not reflected in the writing of the description itself. Since this letter has not so far been written in scholarly language, the assertion that the book is carries less weight than it otherwise would.

And now that we’re at the end of Frank’s first paragraph, should we not know why he decided to contact me at all? So far, it reads like a query, but why on earth send a blogger a query? He doesn’t seem to have a blog-related question (which should have been posted as a comment on the blog, anyway, right?), nor does he appear to be seeking editorial services. Has he perhaps made the rather ubiquitous mistake of believing that anyone called an editor works at a publishing house?

No, seriously, I hear from aspiring writers laboring under this misconception all the time. Let’s read on to see if that’s what’s on Frank’s mind.

Anyway, I’ve two publishers who want me to send them my manuscript. {He names them here.} They’ve sent me forms to fill out.

Okay, so he’s sent queries to publishers, but I recognize that both of the publishers he names are self-publishing houses. Curious about whether either has recently opened a traditional publishing imprint, I checked both websites. Both offer downloadable forms, asking writers to fill them out and send them along with a manuscript or proposal.

Now I’m even more confused. Both of these printers offer editing services for self-publishing writers. So again, how would he like me to help him? Reading on…

One of the things they want is an annotated table of contents. I googled {sic} it and saw your blog.

Not entirely surprising news, as that’s a standard part of a nonfiction book proposal. As I hope every nonfiction writer reading this is aware, the archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand corner of this page includes categories specifically aimed at assisting you in pulling together a book proposal. (You’re welcome.)

If he’s having trouble with his annotated ToC, however — which, to be fair, isn’t always easy to write — why not tell me how? Or, better still, ask a question in the comments on the relevant posts?

Or is he seeking my assistance with something else? The next couple of sentences raise a possibility that rather astonished me.

Man you write up a storm-must be one hellava typer. I can’t type worth a {profanity deleted} -my manuscript was hand written-then hunted and pecked.

More hyphens employed as dashes and other offbeat punctuation — and excuse me, but is he asking me to type his manuscript for him? Because I’m such a good little typer?

Jaw firmly dropped, I read on. The rest of the e-mail will have greater impact, I suspect, if I show it in its entirety. Or as much as I can legitimately reproduce on a family-friendly blog.

Anyway, for {profanity deleted} and giggles I just thought you might give me something to work with and/or recommend. Although they haven’t given a deadline I’ve set mine for early next month-this things {sic} been three years in the making and its {sic} time to fish or cut bait.
Thanks for your time and attention-good luck to you.
Sincerely,
Frank Lee Wantstogetpublished

I’m at a loss for words. I also still don’t know for certain why Frank contacted me in the first place — to what, I wondered, could I just thought you might give me something to work with and/or recommend possibly refer? Advice doesn’t make sense — presumably, he turned up what I had to say about annotated ToCs when he Googled the term. Or at any rate would have, had he checked out the posts under the cryptically-named ANNOTATED TABLE OF CONTENTS category on the archive list.

Here, though, is where I part company with most other professional readers. Millicent, for instance, probably would not have taken the time to ask follow-up questions if a query was unclear — or if it swore at her, for that matter. I did consider not answering it for that reason. Still, if Frank was harboring some question that he was too shy to post on the blog, I was reluctant to leave him hanging. Ditto if he just didn’t understand the difference between a freelance editor and the services for which he would be paying at either of the presses he cited.

While I was at it, I thought it might be a good idea to nudge him back toward a professional tone. As I said, it’s surprising how often writers contacting the pros don’t seem to regard it as an occasion for formal courtesy.

Hello, Mr. Wantstogetpublished —

Congratulations upon completing your book, but I’m afraid that your e-mail was a trifle unclear. Are you asking me to recommend a book on how to write a book proposal? Are you asking to book some consultation time with me on the telephone to go over the forms and how to write the annotated table of contents? Or are you looking for someone to hire to computerize your manuscript for you, since no publishing house would accept a handwritten manuscript?

If you are looking for a word processing professional, I have to say, paying a editor with a Ph.D. to do it is probably not the best use of your resources. To find someone in your area with the skills and expertise to present your manuscript professionally, you might want to call the English department at your local community college; students often are eager for this sort of work. Anyone you hire could find both the rules of manuscript formatting and visual examples on my blog.

If, on the other hand, you were asking for a book recommendation, would you mind posting that request on the blog itself? That way, my answer could be of benefit to other writers. I understand the impulse for personal behind-the-scenes contact, but part of the point of blogging is that it permits me not to have to address thousands of readers’ individual concerns one at a time.

Just so you know, though, many, many writers have used my blog’s directions on how to write a book proposal to write a successful annotated table of contents. Check the Nonfiction heading on my archive list. Should you have questions on what I recommend in those posts, please feel free to ask questions in the comments section.

That seemed to cover the bases — but see why Hawkeye and her ilk have fallen out of the habit of responding to vague e-mails like this? If the writer isn’t clear about what he wants, it takes quite a bit of time and effort to spin out a guessing-game’s worth of logical possibilities.

Another reason the pros tend to burn out on following up on these types of missives: about half the time, a thoughtful response like this will go unanswered. Then the writing guru ends up feeling a bit silly for having been nice enough to try to answer a question that was both asked in the wrong place (if the guru happens to blog, that is) and in an indistinct manner.

While I had Frank’s attention, though, there was no reason I shouldn’t try to help him become a better member of the online writing community. After politely expressing the hope that he would find the guidance he was seeking on my blog, I added:

To assist you in your publication efforts, do you mind a little free advice? People in publishing tend to judge writing quality by every single thing a writer sends them. Your e-mail contained two clich?s, something to which editors are specifically trained to respond negatively, regardless of context. You might want to choose your words with a bit more care.

Also, publishing is a formal business; manners count. It would never be appropriate to use even minor profanity in a communication with a publishing professional a writer had never met — and even if we had, it would not be advisable in an initial approach. A word to the wise.

Best of luck with your book!

Not out of line with the advice he might already have seen on the blog, right? Now, if Frank was like most aspiring writers, he would be glad of some feedback from a professional. He would also, I hoped, be pleased that I had told him where to look on my blog for writing tips. As Hawkeye and Millicent would be only too eager to tell you, however, not all aspiring writers who ask for help are particularly overjoyed to receive it.

You can see it coming, can’t you? Very well: here is Frank’s reply in its entirety. Please be kind enough to read it all the way to the end before shouting, “I told you so,” Millie.

Anne-
Your blog is-well a BLOG-its {sic} really hard to navigate and way to {sic} pedantic-as are you. Anyway my proposal letter worked! My manuscript is processed-it was drafted by hand. Oh fyi-Tolstoy re-wrote War and Peace 10 times before he submitted to the printer. Bye, Bye Ms. PHD
Well isn’t that special!
Frank Lee Wantstogetpublished

One hardly knows where to begin, does one? Leaving aside the obvious questions about why somebody who hates blogs would turn to one for advice and why one would go to the trouble of tracking down a blogger whose advice one found pedantic, I can only assume that my subtle hints about formality of tone were lost on poor Frank. And while clearly, he continues to operate under the assumption that a print-for-pay press is the same thing as a traditional publisher, he’s certainly not the only aspiring writer confused by ambiguous wording on a self-publishing site. The best of luck to him, I say.

But if typing was not what he was seeking, why did he contact me in the first place?

We shall never know. I shall limit myself, then, to observations that might help other writers. First, even if Frank found my response unhelpful, a reply that merely vented spleen served no purpose other than to burn a bridge. That made me feel sorry for him, but that would not be most pros’ reaction.

Second, if one feels compelled to cite pop culture references, do try to keep them within the current decade. Better still, avoid them entirely; by definition, quotes are not original writing, and thus not the best way to show off your unique literary voice or analytical acumen.

Third, as hard as I laughed at his evidently not having been able to come up with a stronger zinger than a reference to my degree (“You…you…educated person, you!”), it bears contemplation that the professor he admired enough to cite in his own book’s title graded me in graduate school. As I mentioned above, publishing is stuffed to bursting with former academics; an aspiring writer can never be sure on a first approach if, where, or with whom the publishing professional he’s asking to help him went to grad school. So if one’s tastes run to credential-bashing, a letter to someone in a position to help get a book published might not be the best venue for it.

Oh, and to address an amazingly common misconception about formal salutations: femaleness is not a universal solvent of credentials. If one wishes to address any holder of an earned doctorate formally, the letter should open Dear Dr. X, regardless of whether the recipient is a man or a woman.

Above all, though, if you decide to make direct contact with anyone who works in publishing, do be polite — and do be clear about what kind of favor you’re asking, if you’re writing anything but what Millicent would expect to see in a garden-variety query. Remember, answering aspiring writers’ questions is not part of most professional readers’ job descriptions: agents make their living representing their already-signed writers, just as editors make theirs handling manuscripts and guiding them to publication. Most of the time, it’s entirely up to the recipient whether to respond to such non-standard approaches or not.

Your mother was right, you know. People really will like you better if you use your manners.

Next time, we shall be delving back into the wonderful world of title page examples. Why? Because we like you. Keep up the good work!

The very first thing Millicent the agency screener spots in a manuscript — and no, it’s not writing talent

Okay, I’ll cop to it: I get carried away sometimes by good questions from readers. Clearly, those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a good, long while have gotten used to that, for not a single one of you raised your paws into the air to point out, “Excuse me, Anne, but is was there some clever explanatory strategy behind your doubtless well-justified decision to devoting a post to how to handle subtitles on title and manuscript pages before we revisited the logic behind including a title page in a submission at all?”

I appreciate your delicacy, but honestly, I had completely forgotten that I had not yet covered title pages in our most recent foray into standard format for book manuscripts. I’m going to be devoting the next couple of days to rectifying that oversight.

I hear the ether resounding with moans of frustration at how much there is to learn about presenting your work as our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, expects writing ready to hit the big time to appear on the page, but honestly, I don’t make the rules; I only explain them for the benefit of those new to the game. Try to think of it as inoculation with professional formatting know-how. It may have left a bit of a sore place, but much better a one-time sting than engendering years of rejection without knowing why, I always say. Once you’ve gotten exposed to the correct way to format a book manuscript, chances are that you’ll be immune to formatting problems in the future.

Why, yes, I have run that metaphor right into the ground. How kind of you to notice.

I have an excellent reason for hammering on it so hard, however: one of the great fringe benefits of inoculation is that, as unpleasant as it may have been at the sticking-point, so to speak, the stuck usually doesn’t have to think all that much about smallpox or whooping cough for quite a long time afterward.

So too with standard format for book manuscripts — once a writer gets used to how a professional submission is supposed to look, everything else is going to look wacky. Seriously, it’s true. As I have been threatening imploring you to believe promising you repeatedly every few minutes while running through the standard format strictures, once you get used to how a professional manuscript is put together, any other formatting is going to feel downright…odd.

Which is, in case you were wondering, why any Millicent worth her salt can distinguish between a professionally-formatted manuscript and one that shouts from the rooftops that the writer has not yet invested the time to familiarize himself with how the publishing industry works. She can spot a deviation from standard format from seven feet away.

Why? Feel free to chant it with me now, those of you who have been following this series — because every single manuscript her boss, the agent of your dreams, sends out to editors at publishing houses looks the same. By an elegant extension of logic, she could reasonably conclude that taking on a new writer clearly unaware of the demands of standard format would require more work for the agency than one who has been savvy enough to learn the ropes . Or, as agents like to put it, a writer serious enough about getting published that she’s bothered to do her homework.

It really does behoove an ambitious aspiring writer, then, to learn to look at a manuscript as a literature-loving but time-strapped Millie with 52 submissions to screen between now and lunchtime would. To that end, I shall be sliding in front of your astonished eyes pages that follow the rules right next to ones that don’t, for side-by-side comparison purposes.

That way, you’ll learn to tell which is which on those numerous future occasions when I don’t happen to be standing next to you, whispering in your ear. (In my editorial experience, writers on a deadline tend to work better with minimal disembodied murmurings. You’re funny that way.)

But before I launch into it, let’s hear it for the usual caveats: what I’m about to show you relates to books, book proposals, and other occupants of query or submission packets only, folks. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself and repeating myself), standard format for manuscripts is just that, a set of guidelines for how book submissions should be formatted, not short stories, screenplays, poetry, magazine and newspaper articles, or anything else. If you’re looking for formatting tips for any of the latter, run, don’t walk, to consult with those knowledgeable souls who deal with that kind of writing on a day-to-day basis.

Yes, Virginia, I have mentioned this before, and recently. I shall no doubt mention it again: I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who believe, mistakenly, that writing is writing, and thus all of it should be formatted identically.

That’s just not the case — and no, arguing with me about it will not change that fact. Out comes the broken record:

broken-record5 Please recognize that not everything that falls under the general rubric writing should be formatted identically. Book manuscripts should be formatted one way, short stories (to use the most commonly-encountered other set of rules) another.

So if your favorite source — other than yours truly, of course — tells you to do something diametrically opposed to what I’m showing you here, may I suggest double-checking that the other source is indeed talking about book manuscripts and not, say, submissions to a magazine that accepts short stories?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but contrary to popular belief, submission standards differ by type of publication. Yet surprisingly often, those giving practical to aspiring writers will conflate the format for, say, short stories, one with that for book manuscripts, resulting in a first page that will look incorrect to either. (Although, generally speaking, such guidelines tend to stick closer to the short story format than to the book.)

A word to the wise: if you have encountered conflicting bit of advice on the Internet — and if you’ve done even the most minimal search on the subject, I’m sure you have — consider the source. If that source does not make a distinction between book and short story format, or doesn’t seem to be aware that all professional manuscripts are not the same, be wary.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because I wouldn’t want any of you to be submitting articles to magazines using the format we’ve been discussing with such vim.

Caveat #2: as is always an excellent idea before you even consider submitting to any given agent, editor, or contest, check the individual agency’s, small publisher’s, or contest submission guidelines before you send anything. I’ve been presenting standard format here, but if the agent of your dreams (or the agent with whom you are currently signed, if they don’t happen to be the same person) has expressed a strong preference for his clients formatting in a manner opposed to what you see here, for heaven’s sake, run with that.

But only for submission to that particular agent, not to every single one currently dancing a jig on the earth’s crust. Contrary to what a good 95% of the generic submission advice out there maintains (or implies by omission), individual preferences do vary. Long-time members of the Author! Author! community, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: not every piece of formatting advice writers hear at conferences or online refers to a hard-and-fast industry-wide expectation. Sometimes, an expressed preference is merely personal.

Admittedly, major deviations from standard format are genuinely uncommon — among manuscripts that agents are currently submitting to editors at major US publishing houses, at least — but let’s face it, you’re not going to get anywhere telling an established agent that no one else’s clients are using 18-point Copperplate Gothic Bold if he happens to have an unnatural affection for it. Part of working with an agent entails trusting that he knows more about marketing books than you do. If he doesn’t, you wouldn’t want to be working with him, right?

I must have misheard all of the query-weary submitters out there. The answer you meant to give is a resounding by gum, yes!

Before my last statement sends anyone out there spinning into that far-more-common-than-anyone-wants-to-admit I want to sign with an agency, but what if I chose the wrong one? panic, remember this: if you’ve done your homework before you signed, and thus are certain that he has a solid recent track record selling books in your category, you have every reason to have faith in your representative.

Or so I keep telling myself when I can’t sleep at night. Hey, handing one’s hopes and dreams to someone else to market is no emotional picnic.

On to the practical examples. Please study both the good and bad examples very, very carefully if you are planning to submit book-length work to a North American agent or editor anytime soon. Why? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but writers often overlook non-standard formatting as a possible reason that an otherwise well-written manuscript might have been rejected.

Oh, not all by itself, generally speaking, unless the violation was truly egregious by industry standards, something along the lines of submitting unnumbered pages or not indenting paragraphs, for instance, the kind of faux pas that might actually cause Millicent to cast the entire submission aside, unread. But in a garden-variety well-written manuscript that combines non-standard format with even just a couple of the common agents’ pet peeves — a clich? on page 1, for instance, or several misspellings in the first paragraph — the result is generally fatal.

Certainly, other rejection reasons get a lot more airplay, particularly at writers’ conferences. If you want to take a long, hard look at some of the better-discussed reasons, I would urge you to gird your loins and plunge into the REJECTION ON PAGE ONE category at right. (Not for the faint of heart: in it, I go over a list of instant-response rejection reasons given by a group of agents going over a stack of actual submissions at a conference, one by painful one.)

Yet surprisingly little conference time seems to be devoted to deviations from standard format for manuscripts. Why shouldn’t conference speakers take thirty seconds of their speaking gigs to pointing out, for instance, that the ways in which a professional manuscript does not resemble a published book — ways that are unfortunately quite obvious to an agent, editor, contest judge, etc., from practically the moment their eyes light upon a submission?

Why is it so very apparent, you ask? Because much of the time, submitting writers will work overtime to make it apparent.

I kid you not: Many aspiring writers clearly go out of their way to format their submissions to resemble published books, in the mistaken belief that this will make their work seem more professional. As we’ve already discussed in this series, the opposite is generally true — and often, it’s discernible in a professional reader’s first glance at the first page of a submission.

If the implications of that last assertion made you dizzy — if, for instance, you found yourself picturing Millicent pulling a submitted manuscript out of its envelope, casting a critical eye over the first page, hooting, and stuffing the whole thing into the handy SASE along with a photocopied rejection letter — try placing your head between your knees and breathing slowly.

Go ahead. I’ll wait until you recover.

And then follow up with a hard truth that may get those of you new to the game hyperventilating again: the vast majority of submissions are rejected not only on page 1, but within the first few lines on page 1. Heck, a harried Millicent will derive a negative impression of a manuscript even prior to page 1.

Keep taking those nice, deep breaths. That dizziness will pass shortly.

Ah, some of you have found your wind again, have you? “Oh, come on, Anne,” I hear some hard-boiled submission veterans scoff, “she makes up her mind that this isn’t a submission to take seriously before to page 1? How is that even possible?”

Well, the most common don’t-take-this-one-seriously trigger is the absence of any title page whatsoever. Many submitters, for reasons best known to themselves, omit the title page altogether from their submissions — often, I suspect, because they are unaware that a professional book-length manuscript always has a title page.

Why? Practicality, mostly. A properly-formatted title page tells an agent precisely how to contact the brilliant author who wrote it — and tells an editor precisely how to contact the agent who represents her.

Was that gargantuan gasp out there in the ether a signal that those of you who have title page-free submissions circulating at the moment are just a teeny bit worried? If so, relax: forgetting to include a title page almost certainly won’t prevent Millicent from reading your submission at all.

She tends to read even the most bizarrely-formatted submissions for at least a line or two (although often no more than that). But that initial impression of an author’s lack of professionalism — or, to call it by a kinder name, of having a lot to learn about how the publishing industry works — does often translate into a rather jaundiced reading eye for what comes next.

Why? Well, let’s take a peek through her reading glasses, shall we? The first thing Millicent sees when she opens the average requested materials package is something like this:

If you’re having trouble reading the fine print, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Have it in sharper focus now? Good. Our Millie might also encounter a first page like this:

Or, heaven help us, like this:

Taken a good gander? Excellent. Now tell me: why might Millicent take one look at these and conclude that the respective submitters of these three first pages could use a good class on manuscript formatting — and thus would be time-consuming clients for her boss to sign?

I see some eager beavers out there with your hands in the air, jumping up and down, eager to tell everyone what’s wrong with each of these as a first page of text — and you’re absolutely right, of course. These examples have failed as both a title page and a first page of text by not including the information that Millicent would expect to see on either.

What makes me so sure she would find this discovery disappointing, at best? Because what she (or her boss agent, or an editor, or a contest judge) would have expected to see on top of that pile of paper was this:

good title

Rather different, isn’t it? Visibly different, in fact, from several paces away, even if Millicent isn’t wearing her reading glasses.

Again, submitting the earlier examples rather than that last would not necessarily be instantly and automatically fatal to a manuscript’s chances, of course. Most of the time, Millicent will go ahead and plunge into that first paragraph of text anyway.

However, human nature and her blistering reading schedule being what they are, she may not. And not necessarily just because she’s impatient with your formatting; she genuinely has only a minute or so to decide whether to read beyond page 1. For those of you new to this screener’s always-rushed days, she has a stack of manuscripts up to her chin to screen — and that’s at the end of a long day of screening queries; screening manuscript submissions is in addition to that.

Given the stack of submissions threatening to topple over onto her poor, aching head, if she has already decided that a submission is flawed, just how charitable an eye do you think she is likely to cast upon that typo in line 13? To use her favorite word: next!

To be fair to Millicent, while it may well be uncharitable of her to leap to the conclusion that Faux Pas’or Ridiculous’ manuscripts are likely to be unpolished because they did not include a proper title page, agencies do have a vested interest in signing writers who present themselves professionally. For one thing, they’re cheaper to represent, in practical terms: the agent doesn’t have to spend as much time working with them, getting their manuscripts ready to submit to editors.

At the risk of seeming blunt, no agent in his right mind would send out a manuscript that didn’t include a standard title page. It serves a number of important — nay, vital — marketing functions. To understand why, let’s take another peek at the professional version. So you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down the page, here it is again:

good title

Did you take a nice, long look? Good. While we’re at it, let’s refresh our memories of our last post’s discussion of subtitle-wrangling by taking a gander at a second proper title page:

Now for a pop quiz: how precisely do Rightly and Collie’s first sheets of paper promote their respective books than Faux Pas or Ridiculous’ first pages?

Well, right off the bat, a good title page tells a prospective agent or editor what kind of book it is, as well as its approximate length. (If you do not know how to estimate the number of words in a manuscript, or why you should use an estimate rather than relying upon your word processor’s count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) Both of these are pieces of information that will tell Millicent instantly whether the submission in her hand would meet the requirements of the editors to whom her agency tends to sell.

Oh, yes, that’s important in a submission, whether to an agency or a publishing house. Really, really important.

Why? Well, think about it: if Millicent’s boss had decided not to represent Action/Adventure anymore, or if editors at the major houses had started saying that they were only interested in seeing Action/Adventure books longer than 90,000 words, Rightly Stepped would be out of luck.

But then, being a savvy submitter, ol’ Rightly would also want his work to be represented by an agent who just adores very long Action/Adventure novels — and regularly goes to lunch with scads and scads of editors who feel precisely the same way, right?

As I may have mentioned seven or eight hundred times before (in this post, it feels like), the standard title page also tells Millicent precisely how to contact the author to offer representation — and that’s a very, very good thing for everyone concerned. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: it is always in a writer’s best interest to make it easy for an agent to help him.

I might be wrong, of course, but I suspect that not forcing Millicent to forage through the mountain of paper on her desk to find a misplaced cover letter with your phone number on it might be a good start toward being a snap to assist. Like bothering to number your pages, identifying yourself clearly on your title page and providing contact information up front is a small way that you can make her life — and her boss’ — just a little less hectic.

By contrast, Faux Pas’ first page doesn’t really do anything but announce the title of the book and leap right into the story. That’s one underachieving piece of paper, isn’t it?

Starting to seem less astonishing that Millicent might pick up each of these manuscripts with rather different expectations about what she’ll find within? It’s not only surprising; it’s inevitable, given how often misformatted submissions also are evidently not spell-checked, proofread for grammar, or — and this does amaze most professional readers — not written in a voice or vocabulary appropriate for the story’s target audience.

Before you go ahead and resent that, bear in mind that the fact that any screener would also have seen many incorrectly formatted manuscripts that do not share these faults is why a well-intentioned Millie would seldom reject a manuscript purely for that reason. The very fact that any well-established agency receives so many non-standard manuscripts means, in practice, that a professionally-formatted manuscript will generally enjoy a competitive advantage.

Think of it this way: Millicent likes to reward writers who do their homework. So why not have your manuscript shout that you have beginning on its top page?

Keep up the good work!

Pursuing complexity in a “Get to the point, will ya?” world, or, what on earth (or off it) am I going to do with my subtitle?

We have ample cause for public rejoicing at Author! Author! today, gentlefolk: for the first time in several nerve-wracking weeks, most of my site’s images appear to be visible to the naked eye of a casual bystander. And that’s good news, I suspect, both for your humble correspondent, the toiling soul generating most of the aforementioned imagery, and those of you kind enough to take more than a casual interest in my mid-blog examples.

To celebrate (and, if I’m being honest about it, to double-check that page-shot images are once again loading correctly), I shall be using this post to dunk a cautious toe back into the warm waters of explanatory illustration. While I’m at it, I’m going to seize the opportunity to answer a question a reader posted during our picture-free hiatus, a question that has been popping up in various forms and guises in the comments since I started the blog.

The purport of those questions, if you’ll permit me to paraphrase: “Gee, Anne, it’s terrific that you’ve recently walked us through the rules of standard format for book manuscripts — not to be confused, naturally, with the proper format for short stories, magazine articles, or the like, as not all writing should be formatted identically. I especially appreciated your having at long last given in to tumultuous popular demand and offered us a one-post visual tour of the constituent parts of a well-formatted manuscript. However, as a devotee of writing in increments, whether it be in complex titling (Puppy Love in Giant Squid: Why Land-lubbers Should Care) or in movie-style series titles (Jason and the Argonauts, Part II: The Harpy-repelling Years), I found myself glancing at your title page and slug line examples and wondering, ‘Hey, what does all of this mean for my beloved colons?’”

Okay, okay, so that’s not the most graceful of paraphrases, but you try summing up 7 1/2 years of writers’ angst in a single paragraph. You get why colon-lovers and subtitle-huggers have been stressing out about this, though, right? Authors tend to become pretty darned attached to their titles — a pity, really, as it’s so very common for publishers’ marketing departments to remark cheerfully to first-time authors, “We love everything about your book, so we’re going to change the title, okay?”

Until an aspiring writer finds herself in that jaw-dropping position (said the lady who murmured in response, “Okay, go ahead and change the title, but would you mind telling me what A Family Darkly means? It’s not a use of an adverb that’s common in English as it is actually spoken.”), however, she can cling to the blissful faith that the author, and the author alone, gets to dictate what verbiage goes on her own book’s cover. The first places that she typically gets to share that usually quite strong preference with the publishing world are the query (even if queriers leave out other necessary elements — and they frequently do — they virtually never forget to include the book’s title), the synopsis, and the manuscript itself.

Specifically, on the manuscript’s title page. Let’s take a peek — at the general shapes of a properly-formatted manuscript, that is. My apologies in advance for variation in distinction across the examples that follow. For some reason that remains as unclear as the lettering here, the site’s begrudging acceptance of imagery does not seem to be extending either to photographs (how I originally attempted to show you these pages) or sharp images in saved jpegs. I’m going to press on, nevertheless, and I hope you will join me.

And in the slug line at the top of every page of text:

Wow, page 1 was pretty light, wasn’t it? Let’s try our luck with page 2.

Even at those odd dark/light levels, that format looks familiar, I hope. With a book with a short title like this and no subtitle, the formatting is perfectly straightforward.

How, though, would the writer of Born Free: Why I Burned My Bra (Although We All Know That Movement Started Because Folks in the Media Mixed Up a War Protest in which Draft Cards Were Burned with a Beauty Contest Protest at which Bras Were Thrown into Trash Cans, Right?) arrange her rather cumbersome title?

In the query, the answer is simple: reproduce the title in its entirety. The only possibly counterintuitive formatting in that context would be to remember that in a query, as in a manuscript, it’s proper to skip two spaces after a colon, not one. But since that’s how civilized people treat colons in every context except newspapers, magazines, and some published books — decisions in every case determined by the editors of those publications, not the authors — that shouldn’t present too much of a problem, should it?

In the synopsis, too, there’s no real problem: the title and subtitle should both appear at the top of the first page. Easy as the proverbial pie.

For the manuscript itself, however, the issue is more complex — or is it? After all, one does not include subtitles in the slug line. So why would one do it here?

Actually, one does not include particularly long titles in the slug line, either; there isn’t room. If a title runs longer than about 40 characters, it’s fine to use a truncated version. In this, our subtitle-embracing writer can simply use the main title:

I hear long title enthusiasts everywhere gasp, but remember, the point of including the title in the slug line is to identify a stray page if it wanders from the manuscript, not to reproduce the entire title as the author would prefer it to appear on the book cover. It merely needs to be recognizably referring to the title.

On the title page, naturally, there’s no reason not to display the subtitle in all of its glory. It’s traditional, however, to allow the main title to occupy its own line, then begin the subtitle on the next double-spaced line. With a subtitle this long, it’s considered unstylish to let it run the entire breadth of the page. Bringing in the left and right margins by an inch and a half each will make it clear that this is all intended as subtitle, rather than misformatted text.

With a shorter subtitle, of course, this would not be necessary.

Everybody clear on that — or, at any rate, as clear as the fuzzy pages will permit? Now would be an excellent time to speak up, if not.

Ah, I see some hands waving out there in the ether. Yes? “But Anne, my book doesn’t have a subtitle per se — it’s the first/third/107th volume in a series that has its own title. So how would I format a title page and slug line for Shooting Arrows in All Directions, the first book in my Running Amok series? I would presume that I would do it as it is formatted in the following examples that I’m mentally beaming to you, but is that correct?”

That’s a good question, series writers. Let’s show your fellow writers what you were imagining, and see how they think Millicent the agency screener will respond.

Is this page 1 correctly formatted or not? To help make that question easier to answer, let’s take a nice, close look.

If you leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “By Jove, Anne, that’s not right! How can it be, when it violates the slug line length restriction we were discussing mere moments ago,” congratulations. Even if it were completely legitimate to embrace the recent movie title practice of slapping the title of the series at the front of the individual book’s title — hint, hint — it would never be acceptable to include a subtitle in a slug line.

You can see why our friend Sens opted to do it that way, though, right? As he pictured the book covers in his series, he naturally envisioned the series title emblazoned above the titles of each individual volume; in his mind, both were legitimately part of the title. And if that’s the case, just showing the main title — in this case, the series title — in the slug line would mean that every book in the series would sport an identical slug line.

Not all that helpful if the Millicent carrying the manuscript of Shooting Arrows in All Directions happens to collide with the intern toting Volume 3 of the same series, is it? It’s not hard to picture the aftermath: “You got Shooting Arrows in my Hatchet Wielding for Fun and Profit!” “Yeah, well, you got Hatchet Wielding for Fun and Profit in my Shooting Arrows!” “Darn, there’s no way to figure out from which manuscript page 37 floated!”

Not a pretty scene, is it? And it definitely would defeat the purpose of the slug line.

So what should Sens have done instead? Treat the title of the book the slug line is marking as — wait for it — the title of the book. Actually, since the first book’s title is rather lengthy, let’s go with a shortened version.

Still perfectly easy to identify on a dark and stormy night, is it not? By contrast, let’s take a peek at how Sens was planning to format his title page.

At initial submission time, it doesn’t matter to Millicent that this book is the first in a series — her boss, the agent of Sens’ dreams, is going to have to fall in love with Volume I on its own merits. So why weigh down the slug line with unnecessary information?

And immediately, other series writers leap to Sens’ defense. “Unnecessary!” they huff. “I see this done with movie titles all the time!”

Precisely — but that doesn’t mean that the publishing industry has embraced the convention. Technically, series titles are not part of the title. Unless, of course, the series in question happens to follow the most common pattern of series naming, using the title of the first book in the series as the basis for the series’ title.

That’s an issue upon which that I’m sure Sens’ future publisher’s marketing department will hold strong opinions. For the nonce, however, all that concerns us is how his title page should appear in his manuscript submissions, right? Here you go.

I can sense some hackles rising out there, can I not? “But Anne,” some of you moan, and who could blame you? “What about individual expression, for goodness sake! These title pages all look the same!”

Exactly. Professionally-formatted book manuscripts differ in the writing, not in their formatting. Not to knock anybody’s right to individual expression, but as a writer, wouldn’t you rather be judged on the text you submit, rather than how you chose to slap it on a page?

Let me guess: quite a few of you had been thinking of it the other way around, hadn’t you? Completely understandable: when first facing the daunting prospect of learning to apply the rules of standard format, most aspiring writers regard its rigors as restricting what they can do. It takes time and experience to recognize that for good writing, anything that distracts Millicent, the agent for whom she toils, or the acquiring editor the agent will be trying to interest in the book from the words on the page and how prettily the narrative flows is both superfluous and poor submission strategy.

Let your writing speak for itself, friends. Series or not, subtitle-bearing or no, that’s how a talented writer should want to be judged.

Speaking of your fine writing, do drop me a note in the comments if the images did not come through properly this time around. I’m a glass-half-full sort of person, so I shall keep visualizing clear visuals while we celebrate having any visuals at all. Keep up the good work!

Oh, look, here comes Mozart, and other pitfalls of writing about the past

Hey, campers —

At long last, my site has come out of its unanticipated exile! Many thanks to those who kept checking in to see what was going on, and even greater thanks to those of you who took the time to check my blog’s other haunts, on my Facebook fan page and Publishers’ Marketplace. You might want to make a note of one or the other, in case this space inexplicably goes blank again.

And no, your eyes are not deceiving you, archive-divers: many of the images in previous posts do seem to have vanished, at least for the nonce. Busily trying to find out why. And wishing that my last series’ conceit hadn’t rested so largely upon showing you via inserted images what a properly-formatted manuscript page should look like. Not to mention rather wishing that I hadn’t spent the last week and a half plotting to write an image-stuffed roaring return to this site.

No regrets are worth a tear, however. Life is for living. We shall press on.

But before we do, here’s a post I wrote in absentia. Enjoy!

Make some room in the loges, please, those of you who habitually read my blog here — for some lamentably undefined time to come, you will be sharing the armrests with readers from my website and my blog’s primary home. For reasons that amaze and perplex some of the best minds of our time, my site — and, I shudder to report, its thousands and thousands of pages of archived posts on matters practical and whimsical — went down a week ago. Until I can manage to cajole, blandish, or outright bribe the Server Gods into allowing anything other than the cruelly ironic motto “It works!” to appear on the site bearing my name and scrutiny, I shall be confined to expressing myself here.

Not that this is a forum at which anyone should be sneezing, of course. But darn it, even I miss my archives.

As it’s safe to assume that not all readers will have known to follow me here, I find myself a trifle reluctant to launch back into our meaty discussion of manuscript formatting. I know, I know — to break off granular examination of such inherently dramatic subject matter is deeply disappointing to all of us. For kicking off my blog-in-exile, however, I thought it might be a bit more diverting to devote a post to a phenomenon with which all of us who love to read must be familiar: being disappointed by a book the friend or relative who recommended it just adored.

That’s putting it mildly, in the case of Harpo Marx’s memoir, Harpo Speaks!. My dear old white-headed godmother has been insisting ever since I was in diapers that it is, if not the best memoir ever written, then at the very least something that anyone gifted with even the vaguest hint of a soupçon of humor could not justifiably live a full, rich life without reading cover to cover, preferably in one sitting. She could not get enough of it. She wished it was longer — and at 482 pages in soft cover, that’s saying something.

Admittedly, she had discovered the book as the only English-language volume in a sparse Moroccan library at a moment in the 1960s when crossing borders between countries in a VW van occasionally entailed waiting in a café for several days for one’s travel papers to be approved and local sentiment against migrating hippies to subside. She read it cover to cover before being begrudgingly waved through a checkpoint.

I recall her having pressed it upon me when she and my godfather returned from their round-the-world trip a few years later. I believe my response took the form of “Goo.”

My mother’s recollection contradicts that, however: even at that tender age, she avers, I rolled my wee eyes and suggested the book was too long for its intended audience, as well as suffering from an insufficient level of environmental description and character development. If she insists that my first complete sentences formed a scathing critique of the startlingly lower narrative standards applied to celebrity memoir compared to, well, the other kind, I’m hardly in a position to quibble.

My godmother, however, was in just such a position, and maintained it with determination for decades. Undeterred by the book’s being so heavy that I could not hold it open long enough to read more than a few lines until I had completed the second grade, she sent me no fewer than three copies in my elementary school years. She inquired, “How did you like it?” during visits in high school. She was at a loss to explain why I had so many other things to read at Harvard, and what did I mean, Harpo Speaks! wasn’t relevant to my dissertation? Was comedy not universal?

If I’d had any sense, of course, I would have buckled down and devoted a few days of my adolescence to making her happy. I’d always known I would have to read the book eventually; there was never any chance of my merely pretending I had.

Actually, that excellent option did not occur to me until a few days ago, when I had reached page 287, when Harpo mentions in passing that he and his brothers shared an office in Beverly Hills — and then fails to say anything more about the ménage other than that actress, playwright, and screenwriter Ruth Gordon dropped by once. In a wildly literary family like mine, the call to read a book somebody else found wonderful ranks right up there with eating your vegetables, looking both ways before crossing a street, and thou shalt not kill. Nice people simply would not consider acting any other way.

So predictably, life cast me at the book’s mercy. In recent years, my godmother became so frustrated at my entirely truthful plea of being continually up to my hipbones in manuscripts both published and unpublished that she hied herself to a bookstore and bought me one more copy. Wary of the potential for evasive action, she waited until I was bedridden from a car crash to deliver it. To maximize the potential of my liking it, she placed me under orders not to begin reading until I was in a good mood.

Like a nice girl — or an animal in captivity, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — I read the book. And all I wanted to do was edit the heck out of it.

I’m not talking about a minor revision here; I longed to chop off a hundred pages or so. To pose some pertinent questions in the margins, along the line of “Um, Mr. Marx, is there any particular reason the narrative is leaving so much to the reader’s imagination?” Perhaps I could inquire whether there’s any point to a particular scene other than the fact that Dorothy Parker is lurking in the background, uncharacteristically silent. And, above all, to point out what we have so often discussed here — well, on my website: just because an anecdote has always made ‘em laugh when told aloud does not necessarily mean it will translate well to print.

I hear some of you snickering, and with some justification. Those of us who read for a living have been known to be substantially more violent about our reading tastes than your garden-variety (or café-variety) casual skimmer. Our throwing arms tend to be in better fettle for flinging tomes that irritate us across rooms, for instance. Our noses twitch at the briefest of digressions, sensing the red meat of easily slashable paragraphs, or even pages. We clutch pens in our white-knuckled fingers — the better to correct wayward commas, my dear — even when reading works by authors as long departed as Jane Austen.

Perhaps especially when reading Jane Austen, given her inexplicable fondness for placing thoughts within quotation marks, and her even less comprehensible habit of summarizing speech, rather than quoting it, within said quotation marks. When someone who spends her days pouncing upon textual anomalies — sometimes literally — happens upon a paragraph like this:

After listening to this full description of Mr. Elliot, Anne could not but express some surprise at Mrs. Smith’s having spoken of him so favourably in the beginning of their conversation. “She had seemed to recommend and praise him!”

we are prone to wake from a stress-induced trance several minutes later to find that we have filled not only all available margins with commentary (often including the phrase what were you thinking?), but also the next page, the page after that, and, should we happen to be reading in a restaurant, significant portions of tablecloth.

We can’t help ourselves, you see. Even now, after having read that paragraph dozens of times over a few dozen years, this Anne cannot but express some surprise that no editor of the period took Aunt Jane to task for that illogical construction.

So yes, my godmother was running a terrible risk in pushing her favorite memoir on me after I had spent some years in the editing trenches. Editors, agents, contest judges, and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, quickly develop gimlet eyes for problematic text, simply because we read so much of it. Many a writer waltzing into the biz expecting a gentle, forgiving reading has ended up feeling as though he had opened the door to what he thought was a spacious stateroom, only to find it stuffed with comedians stacked on top of one another.

Okay, so that’s not the most graceful of analogies, but you get my point, right? How closely professional readers look at a page often comes as a terrible surprise to writers new to publishing. We’re paid to notice everything, and our response to it isn’t always pretty. At first, rookie writers can feel hurt by the vigor and occasional ferocity of marginalia; it’s not uncommon to take objective feedback personally. That comes of not realizing what anybody who works with manuscripts for a living must necessarily come to know: the point of editorial feedback is to help make the published book the best possible version of both the story and the narrative voice.

It’s understandable, then, that when easily-resolved issues rear their not-so-attractive heads in a book that’s been out for a while — especially one as well-reviewed as Harpo Speaks! was when it came out in 1962 — a pro’s peepers might zero in on them. Yes, even a pro already quite familiar with the unfortunately long-standing tradition of celebrity memoirs being — how to put this delicately? — a bit quicker in finding their way into print than some other types of writing. As a result (or, equally often, because people can be shy about speaking the truth to the great), authors admired for their achievements in non-literary venues do not always receive the benefit of hardcore professional feedback, and sometimes, it shows.

I hear memoirists the English-speaking world over sighing happily, imaging the paradise that must be writing free of a critical readership, but honestly, it’s seldom in the story’s best interest to hear only praise. Reticence is not a virtue in an editor, particularly of memoir; being too nice to point out textual problems can hurt the eventual book.

And I’m not just talking about the species of minor harm that might bug only a hyper-vigilant professional reader, either. Had I been in a position to advise someone like Mssr. Marx — of whose performances I am exceedingly fond, by the way — I might have diplomatically expressed some concern over the overall storyline’s containing some logical inconsistencies. And not a few historical ones.

In his defense, neither is at all uncommon in anecdote-based memoirs; such is the nature of the verbal anecdote, as I once learned to my sorrow. In my dim and checkered past, I may have been called in to assist a minor political bigwig in the construction of his or her life story for an admiring public, a process that the Semi-Illustrious One had decided in advance would consist of a barrage of verbal recollections, followed by my wrangling same into a coherent and entertaining story arc.

That proved somewhat problematic, as the SIO’s triumph on one continent might, to pick an entirely hypothetical example, have apparently occurred on the same day that s/he was wallowing in deep despair on the other side of the world. Presidents in two non-consecutive administrations evidently provided crucial support for the SIO’s ongoing crusade — in the reverse order that one would expect if time were, say, linear. Quips a ghostwriter might have uttered in response to certain stories a scant few weeks before might have been recounted with a straight face later as the SIO’s great-grandmother’s most treasured maxims. That sort of thing.

Now, a celebrity collaborating what is sometimes actually and sometimes charitably called a cowriter (or, as my agent at the time kept referring to me when I mentioned the slight variations of fact, the With on the Cover, an honor I subsequently declined when certain anecdotes turned out not to be verifiable) can, and should, rely upon that writer to speak up when storylines collide. The editor should be similarly uninhibited, because you’d be surprised how many non-professional readers will catch inconsistencies in a published version.

And frankly, everyone concerned should be happy about the participation of the eagle-eyed. Let’s face it, not all memoirists are fortunate enough to attract the beneficent attention of reviewers willing to shrug off storytelling anomalies with “This is a riotous story which is reasonably mad and as accurate as a Marx brother can make it.”

Celebrity authors are not the only ones whose manuscripts sometimes escape the rigors of that quite necessary critical scrutiny, unfortunately. For the ordinary memoirist presenting the reader with a trenchant slice of life, it’s quite common for a potential agent, her Millicent, or even the acquiring editor to be the first human being who does not know the author personally — and thus has not enjoyed the benefit of hearing the anecdotes on the page told out loud — to read her life story.

Why might that prove troublesome at submission time, you ask? Well, anyone who regularly handles memoir or narrative nonfiction manuscripts is quite likely to experience the type of visceral response I mentioned above at the sight of certain ubiquitous pitfalls. I, for instance, inevitably felt my blood pressure rising at Mssr. Marx’s tendency — which his With on the Cover seemed entirely unable to curb — to regale us with too-sketchy anecdotes sufficiently devoid of character development and situational detail that someone not already familiar with the story or the people depicted might have trouble picturing the event being recounted.

“Ah,” those of you drawn to anecdotal storytelling leap to your dainty feet to point out, “but that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it, when a writer is trying to capture the spirit of the spoken word on the page? Great raconteurs, especially funny ones, often limit specifics, in the interest of speed. Nobody expects the life of the party to explain what every cobblestone on the street looked like, if the story’s about somebody tripping on top of them. Thus, if a first-person narrative is holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, the very sketchiness of a telling would make it sound like authentic speech, right?”

It might, yes, but a realistically chatty tone is not the only desiratum for a first-person narrative, is it? Ideally, it should also be entertaining to read, easy to follow, and — here I’m going to be nit-picky again — clearly written. Clarity, lest we forget, lies in the eye of the reader, not the narrator — and certainly not in the eyeballs of the most frequent first readers for any not-yet-agented writer of any stripe, the writer’s kith and kin.

Who, more often than not, have already heard the anecdotes in question, and thus are not the best judges of whether the story works on the page. All too often, memoirists famous, infamous, and as yet to be discovered alike fall into the narrative habit of forgetting that their target reader will, if the book is successful, be someone they’ve never met. So it really doesn’t make abundant sense to operate on the narrative assumption that whoever picks up the book will be either able or willing to fill in the details of a bare-bones account.

Remember, in the case of a non-celebrity memoir, the reader is almost certainly going to be someone who could not pick the author out of a police line-up. And the more successful the book is, the more total strangers will be reading it, right? So shouldn’t their perception of what’s going on in a particular scene be of greater authorial interest than, say, the guy who always begs you at parties, “Oh, Harry, please tell the one about the orangutan!” every time you see him? Or the lady who helped you to win the arm-wrestling match with that orangutan?

I guess you had to be there.

Admittedly, a celebrity memoirist frequently can get away with expecting readers to imagine specifics that do not appear on the page — by definition, celebrities are those for whom the public, or at least some large segment of it, have already formed mental images of personalities. That’s certainly the case for ol’ Harpo and his accounts of the Algonquin Round Table: since pretty much anybody interested enough in reading about either would presumably already know something about the players, it might not actually have been necessary for his memoir to explain what each of the movies he mentions was about, who was in it (the roster of Marx brothers varied more than biology might lead one to expect), what the creative process of making them was like, or how the Round Table’s members interacted on an interpersonal basis.

I can’t help but feel, however, as both a reader and an editor, that any or all of those matters would have been darned interesting to see the gentleman discuss. The storyline might have been clearer, and even the most star-struck of readers might have appreciated more information about the folks Harpo name-checks. Call me zany, but unless one happened to be very familiar indeed with the New York-based literati of the 1920s (which I am, as it happens), how easy would it be for one to differentiate amongst a group of poker players introduced thus?

I met a plump Mr. Benson with a toothbrush mustache and a surprised look; a huge shaggy one who looked like he was wearing last week’s dirty laundry; a tall one with a booming voice and a handsome ruddy face; a tall, sad-faced one who kept twisting an arm around his head and massaging an ear the hard way; a bald Mr. Benson with glasses, and a Benson with uncombed hair who looked like a cowhand who’d lost his horse.

I’m perfectly willing to concede that it’s funny Harpo thinks of all strangers who happen to be men as Mr. Benson, but honestly, how much did you retain of that description? Were these men really so similar that two of them could only be described as tall?

An unusually optimistic reader might gloss over this list, clinging to the hope that some character development might occur in the course of a subsequent amusing account of the poker game, but no such luck. Here’s the totality of the book’s description of the rest of the night’s social interactions:

?I stayed and played poker. My luck was lousy, but it was otherwise a surprisingly pleasant evening.

I defy anyone who wasn’t actually holding cards at that particular table on that particular night to be able to glean from this what happened, based upon this description alone. We aren’t given much insight into what our hero was doing, seeing, feeling, or thinking, much less anyone else. Why Harpo hadn’t expected the evening to be pleasant, or how it was, is anyone’s guess.

You wouldn’t believe how often memoir-handling professional readers stumble upon this type of description in submissions. “What am I supposed to be picturing here?” Millicent mutters, because she has too much sense to place words she merely thought within quotation marks. “If this scene isn’t important enough to the story to be shown in some detail, why is it included in the book at all?”

An excellent set of questions, Millie, and ones that richly deserve answering in Part III.

I believe I can answer Millicent’s second question now, however. So may my clever readers, after taking a gander at the only other information Harpo’s reader is given on the subject, also conveniently conveyed as a list, rather than description.

Weeks later, when I finally got them all straight, I realized I had been introduced to, respectively, the writers Robert Benchley and Heywood Broun, Herbert Bayard Swope, the editor of the New York World {sic}, the playwrights George F. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, and Harold Ross, the editor of Judge who was then cooking up an idea for a new magazine to be called The New Yorker.

See what I mean? I would have liked to learn something about these quite interesting fellows other than the fact that they were in the room — a preference shared, I suspect, by pretty much everyone to whom these names might conceivably ring a bell. To anyone else, they would just be names. And good luck matching the moniker with the physical description, should you care enough to do it, because apparently, that’s the reader’s responsibility, not the author’s.

Can you blame me, then, for itching to scrawl in the margin, “Harpo, what makes you think that just mentioning that someone famous was in the room during an incident will necessarily enable the reader to picture his contribution to the scene?”

Again, I believe I can answer that question: as a verbal anecdote told by a famous member of the Round Table to an admiring literature-lover just aching to hear about it, this story probably, as they say, killed. That does not mean, however, that even the most gifted anecdotalist — or the With on the Cover jotting down his reminiscences — could make a narrative spring to life on the page by simply reproducing those spoken musings in print.

Why, then, do memoirists indulge in this storytelling tactic so much? Well, it’s worked socially, right? All too often, though, the social success of an anecdote, like a joke, lies as much in the delivery as in the content. Memoirists often forget that, presuming that the reader — any reader, including one who has never met the author, even in passing — will already have such a clear idea of the narrator’s voice embedded in her brainpan that stories whose hilarity has reliably been in a verbal telling entirely dependent upon tone and cadence will strike her as similarly amusing committed verbatim to the printed page.

Anyone see a problem with employing such a storytelling tactic in a book by a celebrity known for pantomime artistry? Am I alone as a reader in associating this particular author with only the noises of a honking horn and a lilting harp?

At the risk of sounding like an editor, has anybody out there ever actually heard Harpo Marx’s voice?

And while I’m quibbling, is it wacky of me to be express surprise that an editorial staff sufficiently aware of its author’s invariably silent on-screen presence would entitle the work in question Harpo Speaks!, yet not say to him constantly throughout the publication process, “You know, big guy, that story about the poker game doesn’t really come across on the page the way it does when you told it out loud, when you grabbed your ear as a demonstration. Mind if we tweak it so it’s funny, by, say, giving it a plot or not presuming that the reader will be so familiar with your friends that he’ll recognize each and every one of them from vague physical descriptions?”

In the unlikely event that I have not already scared you to death about how intensively pros read, allow me to remind you that this was my reaction to a book that I liked. I found it quite amusing, once I made the additional mental effort of picturing Harpo Marx doing the things the book said he did — and telling the story with gestures.

He was a past master at gesturing, after all. As a reader, I would have preferred Mssr. Marx or his With on the Cover to have made a bit more of that effort for me, but hey, you can’t have everything.

And, to be absolutely fair, I probably would have liked the book even more had I not spent significant hunks of my life hearing it lauded as the single greatest achievement in historical writing since Julius Caesar saw fit to inform an admiring world that all Gaul was divided into three parts. That’s the problem with book recommendations: reading taste is, contrary to amazingly popular opinion amongst writers, largely subjective.

So I’m not blown over by how much more my godmother enjoyed this book than I did. A book recommendation, particularly a wildly enthusiastic one, reveals as much about the recommender as the book. I was aware going in that her personal sense of anecdote leans, as we just saw Mr. Marx’s does, toward what those of us who travel in less rarified circles might call name-dropping. It’s not at all an astonishing habit amongst those fortunate enough to have names to drop.

Heck, I’m not immune to the thrill myself. I can still vividly recall the visceral shock of realizing why I had recognized the comely fellow my godmother had seated next to me at dinner on my second night of graduate school: he’d played Apollo on a long-ago episode of the original Star Trek, and I was not all that far removed at the time from my science fiction-soaked adolescence.

Taste in star-gazing, like literature, is deeply subjective.

What we have been discussing as narrative flaws, however, what any good professional reader would perceive as narrative faults, are objectively observable. If a story isn’t clear on the page, if its point is lost through a too-sparse telling, or if the characters start to blur together due to lack of development, an editor worth her salt — especially as passed by Apollo — is going to notice it. And you’re going to want her to notice it, aren’t you, so your future readers, those fine souls who currently don’t know you from Adam (or Eve, as the case may be) will be able to visualize your story as vividly as you are picturing it yourself?

Permit me to answer that question, too: yes, you do. It might not feel that way when you first receive the feedback, but ultimately, you — and your readers — will be glad of its effects.

Here’s hoping my blog can return to its accustomed home soon; it’s so tiring for me to moderate my opinions like this. Keep up the good work!