Thursday, February 19, 2009

Manuscript Format 101

Manuscript Format 101 with Patrick Swenson, Jennifer Meaders, Harold Gross & Beth Wodzinski

A couple of us (ahem) remembered the typewriter days.  Remember the typewriter days?  Working a story to death was only an option if you were a masochist.  You type a short story once, pour over it for your revision, then retype it *once* and you're done.  Novels?  They'd better come out of your brain darned near perfect.  If, on rereading, you found something that needed to be changed, you would insert pages, renumber with the use of whiteout, and if you had a typo you'd use whiteout tape.  Remember white out tape?  Sure you do.  (Humor me here.)  Standard industry format revolved around two fonts, pica and elite.  Editors worked closely with authors because they were essentially working with first drafts.  And writers really wanted their whole manuscript back in fairly reasonable shape.  Thank goodness for the advent of copy machines, because before they came along, the only way you'd end up with a second copy of your book is if you typed it yourself.

But those days are over (thank goodness) and I brought up this point:  you will spend anywhere from a couple of days to several months on a short story (including 'resting' and revision time) and a couple of months to five years on a novel.  It's going to be gone from your life for some time while it's under consideration.  Why on earth would you ship that baby off without making sure its shirt is tucked in and its socks match and it has the right kind of formal wear on?  Seriously.  I spend at least a couple of hours on format and cover letter on a short story and several days on final format/typo quest/cover letter for a novel.  Synopses are a whole 'nother animal and will take as much time and polish as a short story, because that's what they are, a weird, aggravating, hair-pulling short story that can drive the most level-headed writer to Hemmingway-esque drinking.

The 'guidelines' that publishers put up everywhere are actually rules.  They're a test.  Did this writer do their research and actually figure out what my magazine or press publishes and wants more of?  Can they follow instructions?  That last bit is really important.  Editors don't want to work with prima donnas who want to do everything their way or writers ignorant of the basic processes of the business end of publishing.  

Having said that, the old school formatting for most of the markets is as it always has been.  The exceptions you run across most are for short story e-publications that accept e-submissions.  These publications have the broadest range of rules to test their submissions out, which helps them weed out the spam.  Of which they get tons of.  If you don't read the guidelines you won't know what to put in the subject to dodge their spam filter, won't know if they want e-format (single-spaced, no indentation, double return after each paragraph) in the body of the email or standard format as an attachment and in what format (usually .doc or .rtf.)  If it's snail mail, very few editors will be incensed if they see traditional standard format and their preferred format is not traditional, but it will be a strike against you, and you don't want any formatting strikes against you.  They count against the total, and you don't get a lot of strikes in this business.  Depending on the volume of submissions, you may only get the one.  Yes, there are some harried editors out there who refuse to have first readers (see the part about how first readers aren't the enemy--now you see yet another reason why) who go through hundreds of subs a day and if the formatting screams I'm a newbie it automatically goes in the rejection pile.  Yes, you heard that right.  But you have to mess your formatting up pretty badly to get a rejection like that.  So the final word every one of us on the panel said, with only stylistic variation, is this:  Read the guidelines and follow them, but don't make yourself into a crazy person.  Ultimately it's the writing and the fit that will win or lose you a sale.

The fit, you say?  What ever might you be talking about?

That is a whole post all by its lonely.  See you tomorrow.

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