I really have nothing to say. Actually, I’ve been pretty speechless these days, mainly because most of what has been going on around me, especially in the media, has made my jaw drop. One of gaping maw moments hit me this afternoon when my husband banged at my office window. He told me to hurry to the other side of the house where I saw this huge beaver (expand to see its big paddle tail), just chomping on some grass in the neighbor’s yard. We live on a lake, and beavers have been known to steal our sapling trees, but I’ve rarely seen them, rather the evidence of them visiting, such as the sharpened-to-a-pike stumps of trees they’ve hauled off to their lodges. But this one was live and in person, though I recalled hearing somewhere they were supposed to be nocturnal. Hyper-aware of that fact because just that morning, we had taken our cat for his annual check-up and shots, and a nocturnal animal in the day was a red flag for rabies. So tried to get some info before going outside, learning that although they are basically creatures of the night, they do often come out during the day to feed, and that their prime mating period is January to March. So maybe this was just a gestating female doing the beaver equivalent of running out in the middle of the night for some beaver pickles and ice cream. What the hell. It’s possible.
I cannot even begin to tell you how I feel these days. Off-kilter may be a good descriptor. Or how about on edge. Nervous. Keyed up. Obsessed (with the news, at least). Angry. Defensive. Inspired. Hopeful. Determined. Renewed. The last few words come courtesy of what I’ve seen happening around me, on the Mall, at airports, in public squares. People becoming more engaged in the process. Millennials taking to the streets and making their voices heard. Journalism has been reborn and invigorated (when’s the last time you heard about a Kardashian?) recalling its roots and the First Amendment. I mean seriously, who’d have thought Americans would experience a world we previously imagined only in dystopian fiction? But it it’s real, and if you think it’s not happening, look around and see the signs invading our daily lives. I can even give you an example of how it’s affecting my writing. My work-in-progress features a man who’s in the U.S. armed forces. I like this character, he’s smart and funny and charming, and has all the qualities–and foibles–I’d expect from a fully functioning rational human being. But since he’s an officer in the service, I can’t help thinking how he’d view his commander-in-chief, how he’d react if he were sent to engage in a military action he’d find indefensible. Would he let his moral compass guide him? Or would he blindly obey orders because that’s what all military are supposed to do? I just don’t know. We are living in extraordinary times. I told a friend the other day this is what it must have felt like right before the Civil War. One thing I do know is I’ve never felt more patriotic, and that’s not just jingoism, kids. I’ve never believed in the wisdom of our founding fathers more. Because their true genius lay in the fact they knew their experiment in democracy was flawed, trusting in future generations to pursue a more perfect union. Which is why we need to keep working on it going forward, and never ever back, never again.
As a follow-up to my sage advice on formatting you manuscript, I asked three agents about how much it matters in their determination on whether to ask to see more or simply hit the delete key. I might add that although there’s varying opinions on its importance, ambivalence aside you always want to make the best impression, so why play fast and loose? Make it the best it can be. But then again this is only my advice and the more you get rejected, the more publishing space that leaves for me. Just sayin’. Anyway, what they said, verbatim…
Marisa Corvisiero of The Corvisiero Literary Agency:
“We don’t put that much importance on the formatting in our decision making. Of course a clean well formatted easy to read manuscript is needed, but unless it makes it difficult to read or is clearly an issue with the authors aptitude, a ms. will not be declined because it isn’t well formatted. However, an agent might not continue reading if difficult to read. They may not even be aware that they don’t want to keep reading because figuring out the format is tiring them out. We prefer Times New Roman font size 12. 1 inch margins. Clear chapter headers.”
Lois Winston of the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency:
“Professionalism is very important. If a writer doesn’t take the time to present a professional query and manuscript, it says to the agent and/or editor that this is a person who will be a headache and take up far too much of the agent’s or editor’s time. There are too many good authors out there who are looking to get published and very few publishing slots in comparison.
“Agents and editors routinely and immediately weed out the unprofessional ones without giving more than a cursory look (if that) to the work. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for any agent or editor to devote to a writer who won’t bother to learn how to present a professional looking submission. There are plenty of books and articles on the Internet that tell writers how to do this. Nowadays, most agents and editors won’t even bother to send a form rejection letter. They immediately hit the delete key.
“MS Word is the standard. I don’t know of any houses that use a different word processing software at this point. The ms. should be formatted in 12-pt. serif font. Times New Roman is the standard, but others are acceptable. (I once had a writer submit a sci-fi ms. in 8-pt. “Star Trek” font. He probably thought he was being ingenious; he was ignorant and stupid. I couldn’t read beyond the first few sentences without getting a headache.)
“Mss. should always be double-spaced. Margins are 1” – 1-1/2”. Typos happen, and we all understand that. I doubt there’s a book that has ever been published that didn’t contain at least one typo, even after multiple proofing from various professional copy editors and proofreaders. However, a manuscript that is loaded with typos from the first page onward will be an instant rejection. Spell-check is a writer’s best friend—as long as you don’t use auto-correct.”
Margaret Bail of Fuse Literary:
“I don’t think there’s any “standard” requirements, but the expectation is definitely for a clean, professional-looking manuscript. It speaks a lot to the author’s seriousness about their career and profession. The decision of an agent and editor should be based on the story itself, not on the formatting (unless formatting is integral to the storytelling in some way), so fancy formatting really just gets in the way of reading the story. Besides, as an agent I’m going to have to clean up and “fix” any fancy stuff before I send it to an editor. And a side note–clean also means a well-edited manuscript. I don’t want to have to spend hours fixing an author’s grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. If I get that in my inbox I’m not going to request the ms, much less read it.”
So that’s it. Ignore this advice at your peril, or if not, well, you’ve been warned.
Hey, why not post them? I was there, but they did come out pretty shitty. The Random House Open House was a Hunter College on December 15, not as exciting as being on their home turf, but the line-up was pretty darn stellar. Can’t really complain about that. So here’s my pix taken with my little Canon camera, and don’t bitch about them. If I’d used my phone they’d be even crappier.
Yes, okay, they’re really dark crappy pictures. But I have stellar images in my head! So glad I was there!
Remember when you were in college (or even high school for that matter) and you took a class called Composition? We all had to follow some kind of standard formatting for our essays, whether it be standards set by the MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association). It’s no different in the world of publishing. There’s a “somewhat” standardized type of formatting writers follow when submitting work to be published. I say somewhat because all manuscripts, at least in their final form, are subject to a house style which is tailored to a publishing house’s individual preferences. But you can’t know that unless you’ve been sold, so to up those chances, you’ll want to make your manuscript as clean and professionally-presented as possible. You may not think formatting has a place in this, as your story, your ideas, your own unique voice will supersede anything as inconsequential as paragraphing or indents or the proper use of voice tags. But first you have to get that editor or agent to read your work. And if you’re making it too difficult for them to decipher what you’re trying to say, you may never get them to read past the first few lines.
So make it easy for them, beginning with a few basics that are a part of ANY manuscript submission—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or otherwise.
- Make sure your manuscript is the best it can be. Close all plot holes, make sure it has a catchy beginning and a satisfying ending, that your characters are compelling and human. That’s for another workshop, but you do want to make sure you’re happy with your manuscript before you send it off.
- PROOFREAD! Correct ALL spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This goes without saying.
- Be familiar with where you’re submitting. Check the publisher’s/magazine’s/journal’s submission guidelines for style and formatting. If you’re sending to a particular editor, check to see if they have an individual preference. I worked with a publisher once who did NOT like semicolons. I had to eliminate all from my manuscript. Most times you won’t know this in advance, but if the info’s out there, it’s up to you to find it. Plus it gives you an advantage, the more your know.
- Check to see if the publisher/magazine/journal is accepting electronic or paper submissions. They may have different formatting guidelines for each. Most now use electronic submission, but there are still several out there that only take paper, and there are differences.
Okay, so you have your manuscript all spiffed up, and you’re now going to prepare it for submission. What would a properly formatted manuscript look like? I want to caution you that agents and editors as well as publishers, etc. may have different formatting guidelines, but most of what I am showing you is the general consensus of what an ms. should look like, and this is what has worked for me when I submitted.
The publishing industry standard is MS Word, 12 point font (usually Times New Roman). The entire body of the manuscript should be double-spaced.
- TOP LEFT – Your name and all contact info, including address, phone number and email in single space.
- CENTER, MIDDLE OF PAGE – Title of work in bold and all caps
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Genre of work with approx. word count
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – the word “by” (in small letters)
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Your Name
- BOTTOM RIGHT – the word “Contact:” followed by agent’s name and all contact info in single space (skip if no agent)
FIRST PAGE OF MANUSCRIPT
- TOP LEFT IN HEADER COMMAND – LAST NAME/Title of Work (written like that.) If the title is long, just use the first few words. You need to insert Header in “Header” so this info appears on each page.
- TOP RIGHT – Start page numbering, starting with pg. 2, using “Insert Page Number” command so pages automatically advance. Leave the title page blank by using the command in Word.
- CENTER, SKIP FOUR OR FIVE LINES – TITLE OF WORK – in bold and in all caps,
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – the word “by” (in small letters)
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Your Name
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Again, Genre and word count
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Chapter One
- CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Title of Chapter (in italics, if you’re using one) The chapter number and title of chapter are open to style.
BODY OF MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING
- Indent each new paragraph. For ease of use, I use on tab
- Indent one tab for each new speaker or when speaker changes
- Italics for internal dialogue
- Capitalize the first letter of each word for Names
- Capitalize the first letter of towns, cites, states, countries, streets, etc., proper nouns and copyrighted names and terms
- Capitalize the letter I when you’re using first person (you’d be amazed how many times I see it isn’t)
- Encase dialogue “In quotes”
- Follow this formatting for voice tags: “I’m not going,” she said. “You’re not going?” he asked. (Comma after last word, followed by the end quotation mark, followed by the voice tag (she said, he asked) followed by a period, or additional info. The voice tag is part of the sentence. Do NOT add an extra space after the quotation mark, or Word will automatically capitalize the following word.
- Use * * * * * for scene changes within chapters, or # for change of POV or impact within chapters.
- End a chapter by INSERT PAGE BREAK command so the next chapter will start on a new page,
So that’s what’s worked for me. A clean manuscript will keep them reading, but a sloppy one is just one keystroke away from the delete button. Keep them as far away from it as possible.
I’m going to say quite unabashedly that I’m one of those people who celebrates Christmas. You know, in the traditional way, by putting up a tree, stuffing my face with cookies, and using any excuse to blame Christmas for not doing something I was supposed to. To prove my allegiance, I settled on this picture of the Big Guy, aka Classic Coke Santa, because there’s just too elves out there to pick from. I was going to go with something really different, but I just couldn’t settle on any one picture from this selection of “Santa Invades Twelve Classic Paintings.” Just too much gold there. So hard to pick. And to that I say, may your choices be many, under the tree or the by the light of your menorah.
Happy Holidays, all!
Random House is home to the world’s most acclaimed storytellers, thought leaders, and innovators, and Open House is our signature special event.
Held three times per year, this unique day-long experience brings together the biggest names in publishing for a full day of interactive author panels and book talks in New York. Readers get a behind-the-books look at what’s new at this all-inclusive day. Our tenth Open House will take place on Thursday, December 15.
Featured authors at this Open House include Diana Gabaldon, Jodi Picoult, Trevor Noah, George Saunders, Jon Meacham, Fannie Flagg, Lindsey Lee Johnson, Allison Pataki, Sana Krasikov, and Laura McHugh.
Plus at the end of it — wine. Lots and lots of wine. I’m so there.
Recently a friend sent me a manuscript she was reworking after having received a so-called “good rejection” from an editor. In case you’re not familiar with such rejections, that’s when the editor thinks the submission is good enough to warrant another look after some changes are made. Sometimes the changes are suggested, sometimes not, but most editors do include some illuminating commentary, and if you have to receive a rejection, they’re decidedly the best kind. This particular editor didn’t offer anything specific other than she’d like to see some more insight in the beginning, and perhaps something a bit incendiary a little farther along. Well, not only did my friend comply–she did so in spades, injecting enough plot complications this no-longer sagging saga’s got more twists and turns than a whole bag of Twizzlers, and boy-oh-boy does it snap. But this reworking also leaves her with another wholly unintended consequence: she’s created a Genre Cocktail. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So what am I talking about? Okay, let me use her story as an example. She started out writing Romance, and the story has all the components: meet cute, solid conflict, steamy couplings, de rigueur happy conclusion. Though to keep it interesting, she tossed in a bit of suspense–a medical mystery, an employee theft, a woman on the run. But when the editor found it lacking, she heightened the stakes, adding a red herring, jaw-dropping duplicity, corporate espionage, and a breathless chase that leaves you guessing until the end. Three-quarters of the way through, when I got smacked by yet another twisty-turn, I was nearly certain I was no longer reading a Romance. Or was it a Romantic Suspense? No, it was more like a Thriller. Or howabout a Romantic/Suspense/Thriller? Not quite sure, I told myself as I kept flipping pages. What did it matter anyway? Whatever it was, it was good.
Should it matter? Or should whatever you write be able to be found under a keyword or a specific genre header? Usually it does–when you’re writing in a specific genre: Romance, Mystery, Thriller, SciFi, Fantasy. But these days you have Romantic Suspense, Historical Mystery, SciFi Thrillers and many more cocktails that are less easily identifiable. So how do you categorize them? Which search keyword do you use, under which header sign do you look? Do we create subgenres of subgenres? And moreover, how do we present such a work to the acquiring editor? By lumping together genres, do we confuse the issue–or do we clarify it? Especially if it’s so out there, we fear we may never be able to grab an editor’s eye and get an in.
The first time I had a salt caramel I was in a candy shop in Philadelphia that makes their own confections. The candy itself was a standard cube of buttery caramel dipped in dark chocolate, but centered on top was a delicate pinch of sea salt. In theory, such a combination shouldn’t work–separately, maybe–but together? And then I took a bit and ohhh…what exquisite fusion! the sweet playing off the salt, and visa versa. It shouldn’t work, but it did, as one taste flowed into the other, a mutual appreciation of each other’s attributes that ultimately produced magic. It can be the same with crossing genres, as within the story I read over the weekend, the twists and turns that heightened the stakes ultimately complicated the conflict, and that made surmounting the insurmountable so much more satisfying in the end. The trick, and this is where the execution can be dicey, is when you add Historical and Mystery elements to a Thriller, or Romance and Horror aspects to a SciFi and so on in any direction. Like salt to a caramel, they need to fuse all the elements together and advance the plot, or they’ll just seem gratuitous. And above all, don’t forget your core audience. If you’re mainly writing a Mystery, you’ll still need to have the case solved, or with a Romance, you’ll still need the happily-ever-after. The upside is if you integrate these other elements well, you’ll have the bonus effect of expanding into another genre, which of course, makes for more readers–and buyers–of your book.
In the end, with whatever genre, and however it’s achieved, it all comes down to writing a good story. And there isn’t an editor in the world who’d argue with–or reject–that.
Yessiree — that’s me. A big ol’ smoking NaNoWriMo fail. I mean I tried–I really did. But I’m just not a verbal vomit type of writer. I’m deliberate. I ponder on a point. I edit, And re-edit. And edit again. That’s what I seem to do best–editing. Can’t stop myself. I just keep going back and forth until I get it right. And I eventually do. I have been published, so there is documented proof. But I just can’t keep writing until my fingers bleed and there’s pus crusting up my eyelashes. And apparently I’m not the only one. I found this on the Oxford Dictionaries blog about other ways to fuck up, so I know I’m not alone. I feel so much better now.
1) Discover a television show you really have to binge watch
‘TV is a great way to learn about crafting dialogue,’ you say to yourself, planning to make detailed notes while watching a modern classic like The Wire or The West Wing. Eighteen hours later, you’re watching the finale of America’s Next Top Model with gummy sweets stuck to your face and empty bottles of wine littering the floor. Yes, great writing can happen on TV – but maybe ration the scenes you want to observe.
2) Get too calculator-happy
To reach that target of 50,000 words in November, you have to write 1,666 words per day. Oh, and another 2/3 of a word on top of that. My first step was working that out, then calculating how many words I could write per hour, how many words I would want to erase per hour, how many words were in the average paragraph, how many words were in the average sentence, and whether I had enough milk for all the cups of tea I’d need. I was exhausted before a word was written.
3) Use literally everything as a reason to cancel
‘I’m a busy, cool, important person,’ I mused, sitting alone in my room and wondering if ‘new BuzzFeed quiz’ was an event worth noting in my diary. My life was definitely too hectic to fit in anything like writing. Yes, sure, cancel if you’re going to your BFF’s birthday party or undergoing emergency surgery, but reasons for cancelling probably shouldn’t include online quizzes, trying out a new recipe, or staring blankly at a wall.
4) Get too obsessed with greatness
I recall the day (aged about 24) when I realized that it was unlikely I’d ever be a child prodigy. I’ve come to terms with that crushing blow, more or less, but I’m still apt to wander along my bookshelves past Austen, Dickens, and Woolf, and get despondent about the fact that my name won’t go down in the annals of history as one of the All Time Greats. That’s ok: there are plenty of other authors out there too.
5) Get overly absorbed, engrossed, occupied, and buried in a thesaurus
Nobody likes the same word several times in a paragraph – well, unless you’re Britney Spears singing ‘Womanizer’, of course – but you can save the finer points of synonym-hunting for later in the process. I got so bogged down in finding a synonym for ‘once’ that I never got as far as ‘upon a time’.
6) Do all the research
While some research is a good thing, too much research is dangerous. While some have the mind for this sort of prodigious content digestion and distillation, most of us don’t. So whether you are deep in a Wikipedia spiral reading about mathematical paradoxes (and plotting the metaphorical significance thereof) or lost in the dusty stacks of your local library cracking open dusty tomes (there might be a reason that book hasn’t been opened in decades), be careful not to get too lost, or you’ll never get anything down on the page at all.
7) Get down with doubt.
Doubt sure feels like your friend at times! The friend who lazes next to your keyboard and tells you to cut that word … oh, and that one also … and maybe that entire character? Really, that whole page/scene/chapter is garbage – far better to just start all over again. Maybe a novel isn’t the best venue for this idea? Maybe a play, or a movie script, or a poem, or a — Eh, you get the picture. (Picture! What about a photo essay?!)
8) Not hitting CTRL + S every five minutes.
Nothing kills the mood like a spectacularly written – and spectacularly unsaved – paragraph. If you’re clever enough to be using a cloud-based document editor, then, well, good for you. I wasn’t.
- The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.