Friday, December 4, 2009

Judging a Book

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


Jessica Lourey said...

This is excellent advice all around, Gin--simple and true, and as you say, so "obvious" that no one ever tells anyone. You've done writers, agents, and editors a favor!

This made me giggle in the early morning:

"You are trying to get published, so the recycling gods will probably forgive you."

I also like your reasoning for not using a cover page. I also don't know how to make my word processing program start numbering with "one" on the second page and so when a cover page is called for, I create a second document for that.

I read somewhere, actually a newspaper article about five years ago when I was still working on my first manuscript, that if you're an attractive person, you should include a photo of yourself in your query letter because marketing is such a huge part of book sales, and "pretty" people sell more books. I don't know if it'd snag a book deal, but maybe a date?

Thanks for being a writing contest judge!

Cricket McRae said...

Terrific information, Gin. I'm mentoring a local sophopmore as she writes a novel for her school project. One of her goals is to learn how to approach publishers and agents, and this is stellar advice to give her.

I've also heard that serif fonts on hard copy are easier to read, but that sans serif fonts are easier to read online.

Last time I used a title page you could insert a section break after it and start numbering the second section. It's been a while, though...

Good luck with your judging!

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Excellent advice, Gin, and information we old hands take for granted. My two cents: Don't spend your money on special software for writing novels. Just set up a basic template and use that everytime ... it's free and doesn't require upgrades.

It's easy to start new page numbering wherever you need it. Insert a "section break" instead of a "page break" at the end of the title page by using the "insert" tab on tool bar. Next select "header/footer" under "format" on toolbar to bring up the header/footer toolbar. Click on the icon for "page number format" and turn on the feature "start at" under page numbering. You can then tell the document to start this page at any number you wish. If you leave it on "continue from previous section" it will continue numbering in the usual manner.

Hope this helps.

G.M. Malliet said...

Jess - as to photogenic people including a photo: I have the strange idea this might help in the case of a non-fiction book, but it could hurt in the case of a fiction book. Why I think this I do not know.

Cricket and Sue Ann - So *that's* how it's done, by using sections! I really didn't know and this has bugged me for years.

Also, Cricket, I love it that you are acting as a mentor.

Terri Bischoff said...

What a great post! Sitting here with a virtual pile of submissions, I kept nodding and saying yep, you go girl.

I would add - read the publishers submission guidelines and follow them. You wouldn't believe, or maybe you would, the partial submissions I receive. Drives me nuts!

And you won't anger the recycling gods around here - I only accept emailed submissions. Only if it's promising do I print it out.

Best of luck with the judging - it's a tough job - but exciting as well.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Gin--Good tips! Not everybody knows this...which explains why slush piles have such a bad name!

Hope the judging goes a little better..are you still reading submissions?

Mystery Writing is Murder

G.M. Malliet said...

Elizabeth - oh yes! & manuscripts continue to arrive.

Alan Orloff said...

Gin - You are a generous (and brave) soul for being a judge. Great tips, too! I guess it all boils down to making things clean and easy to read. Then the words themselves can jump off the page.

G.M. Malliet said...

Terri - as aquisitions editor, you certainly know whereof you speak!

I find reading online difficult but I do applaud MI's conservation efforts.

[One thing I forgot to mention is authors should use 1-inch margins, all around the page.]

Beth Groundwater said...

Great tips, Gin! I am a second round judge for the mystery/suspense/intrigue and short story categories of the Pikes Peak Writers contest, have been for years. As a second round judge, I'm brought in to review a submittal if the scores of the first two judges differ by more than a certain %.

I can tell you, there's nothing that turns me off a submission faster than the writer not having a basic grasp of the rules of grammar and punctuation and not having thoroughly spell-checked their submittal. The basics count, folks!

Mike Dennis said...

Good advice, Gin. What do you think about Courier New? It's got a serif and it's pretty easy to read.

G.M. Malliet said...

Mike - For some reason, I associate Courier New with scriptwriting, but of course it's a standard font and fine for manuscripts, too.

Anonymous said...

This is another way to get that pesky number off the first page.

G.M. Malliet said...

Anonymous - It never occurred to me to put "0" (zero) in the "Start at" box, as Microsoft recommends at the link you provided, but that does make sense. I'll give it a try.