by G.M. Malliet
I was recently tapped to be one of the judges in a writing competition. What an honor. What a responsibility. What a real labor of love - emphasis on labor, emphasis on love.
Many submissions later, and more on the way...Since my own escape from the slush pile is not that far in the past, I’m excited by the quality of what I’m reading, and determined to give everyone a fair shot.
I am also starting to see what agents mean when they say "Don’t give me any excuse, however small."
They are swamped with good-quality manuscripts. I get it now. They are looking for reasons to toss your gorgeous book aside.
Don’t give them a reason.
That means this: No funny fonts. No colored fonts. No odd spacing. Nothing that makes you stand out, in fact (except your exceptional writing and storytelling skills, of course). Boring conformity is what the agent and editor want to see.
I repeat: Don't give them a reason. These people are more jaded than I am. They are more tired after years in the business. Their eyesight is probably bad, and they may be cranky, for any number of unknown reasons. They may not choose to ignore, as I steadfastly do, the things that make it harder to read your manuscript. After all, I'm in this for the short haul, so I can be more diligent, and "holier than them."
They will not be as patient. Trust me on this.
The things it is assumed "everyone" knows about submitting a manuscript - not everyone does. So I’ve recently been compiling my own list of the formatting rules I didn't always know:
* Doublespace the entire manuscript. There is no need to triple or quadruple space between paragraphs – just doublespace.
* Indent each paragraph five spaces. Fewer or more spaces can make it harder to read. Also, don’t use dashes at the beginning of each paragraph. (I don’t know where this formatting style started - is it a European thing?)
* Again, no fancy fonts. Plain old Times New Roman, 12 point, is just fine. By the way, I was taught that a sans serif font, like Arial (apparently the default font for this blog), is harder to read than a font with serifs – those little sticky-outy things (a technical term I learned from Hallie Ephron) like on the letters g and p and m. Supposedly, the eye can track words better when you use letters with sticky-outy things.
* Put your name, the title of your book, and the page number on every page. The exact way you do this probably doesn’t matter. I put, for example, Malliet/Death of a Cozy Writer at the top left of each page, and the page number at the top right of each page. Imagine if you will a busy agent, dealing with dozens of manuscripts on her/his desk. The casual swoop of an arm, and there go your manuscript pages, mixed up now with dozens of other manuscript pages. This is the reason why you should label every page.
* Despite the above, it is not necessary to bind your pages. I have heard that agents/editors prefer pages unbound, except for a rubber band around the middle. Has anyone else here heard the same? (I think a giant, removable clip at the top is fine, too, but that’s just me.)
* By the same token, elaborate packaging isn’t necessary. A manuscript-sized box, such as that provided by the postal service for priority mail, or one of those unrippable bags is fine. One agent (now I can’t remember who) has famously begged people not to pad their manuscript with that plastic popcorn stuff, which tends to explode into every corner of an office.
* Center your chapter headings so the break is obvious. I also bold my chapter headings. Some people (me) begin a new chapter at the center of the page itself. It doesn’t matter, I don’t think, and probably wastes paper.
* Despite what I just said, it is better/more usual not to print on both sides of the page. Yes, I know this is wasteful. You are trying to get published, so the recycling gods will probably forgive you.
* Scene shifts or breaks in a chapter: Everyone does this differently, but use something to clearly indicate this type of break - don’t just quadruple space. I center five asterisks on a line by themselves to indicate that I’m shifting gears slightly, but I’m still in the same chapter. (*****).
* I don’t think a separate title page is necessary, although I’m probably in the minority here. I just put my title, name, Chapter 1, and then I start the story, all on the first page. (I confess that I only started doing this because I couldn't get my word processor to start numbering from the number 1 on the second page of the document file. Bill Gates, are you listening?) However, if you want a separate title page, I would bet most agents would tell you not to bother using a graphic or background image. Personally, I like this look and think it is effective in setting the tone. But we’re talking boring industry standard and getting published - so play it safe.
What have I forgotten?
Typescript image taken from http://www.star-dot-star.co.uk/books/buttons/004946.jpg