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!