Formatting a Manuscript

Writers can certainly have visions of how they want their books’ interior to look when readers open them, with such things as drop caps and fancy-looking fonts for the title and chapters and body. For those who self-publish, it’s certainly up to them what design they want. However when submitting to agents and/or presses, they’ll rarely accept a manuscript that’s been elaborated as such. It needs to be easy for them to read and edit, similar to how play and film scripts must be easy for actors to read. Design for novels comes later. I’ve found it best to use a manuscript format while writing. It makes it a lot easier to focus on the story. A similar situation I think most people can relate to would be school papers; teachers and professors often give specific formatting guidelines to their students, based on their own preferences.

Agents and publishers will often have their own preferences that they specifically ask for or use later, but there are some commonalities I’ve found in advice and tips already out there, and from my own experience. What follows are some personal observations and recommendations based on some of these commonalities. Note: this discussion focuses specifically upon novels, as opposed to plays or screenplays (both of which I’ve learned have their own formatting guidelines), and using Microsoft Word.

Now, writers can go in manually and adjust, or modify text formats and headings so they can just be chosen. When it comes to the text, Left is preferred rather than Justified, and no hyphenating (both will come later, with the final layout). Tabs aren’t recommended; instead, format paragraphs so the first line is always indented. The only paragraphs which don’t have to be indented are the first in each chapter. With titles and chapter headings, I’ve learned it’s best to Center and Bold them so they stand out. Italics are used only when there’s a specific need for them, such as for internal thoughts.

When it comes to font, a small handful are generally preferred: Times New Roman, Arial, Courier New, and probably Calibri and Cambria now. Make it all size 12 (except the book title if you wish). I also turn off the Widow/Orphan Control when setting the paragraph format. Why? Say there are one or two lines left on a page for a brand new paragraph. It’ll automatically instead go over to the next page and you have an empty line. Turning off the Widow/Orphan Control prevents that, so a page’s entire space is used. 1″ margins and regular paper size (8.5″ x 11″) are also preferred. Old school would have two spaces after every sentence, but nowadays it’s just one. Some would have the book title on the same page as the first chapter. In other cases there’s a separate title page, which I personally prefer. I also make it a separate section from the chapters, so it doesn’t have page numbers like they do (which are typically centered in the footer).

In the end, I now think of manuscript formatting this way: it’s a book ready to receive edits as well as an elegant design, just as a play or script is ready to be read by actors. It’s beautiful in its own way, designed to be presented to the publishing world. If you have experiences and/or opinions of your own on formatting a manuscript, please feel free to share them.

Further Reading
  1. SMF – Standard Manuscript Formatting.
  2. Dacus, Kaye. Manuscript 101–Introduction & Basic Manuscript Format.
  3. Fogarty, Mignon. Two Spaces After a Period.
  4. Hill, Beth. Format Your Novel for Submission.
  5. Kewin, Simon. 16 Manuscript Format Guidelines.
  6. Klems, Brian A. What Are the Guidelines for Formatting a Manuscript?
  7. Williamson, Jill. How to Format a Fiction Manuscript.
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Nom de Plume

Nom de Plume, pseudonym, pen name, whichever term you prefer to use, several writers have used one instead of their real names. Like fictional characters, a pen name in itself is a persona created in the writer’s imagination.

Your real name can in essence become a pen name, or what I like to call a “writer’s name” where nothing is made up (otherwise it’s a pen name). There are many options beyond your first and last names. You can include your middle initial, go with your full name, or use initials. If you prefer your middle name, you can use it alone or also include your first initial. If you go by a nickname, have a suffix, more than one middle name, and/or a maiden name, you have even more possibilities. Try saying them out loud, so you can hear how they sound.

There are many sources from which you can create a pen name. You can of course use part of your real name. You could pay tribute to relatives, friends or other people, places real or fictional, something special to you, or maybe it could be an anagram. Samuel Clemens came up with “Mark Twain” from working on the Mississippi River (from a phrase indicating the water to be two fathoms deep). Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took the Latin versions of his first and middle names, anglicized the spellings and swapped them to create “Lewis Carroll”. It could even be one name. Charles Dickens initially used the pseudonym “Boz”.

Usually, a pseudonym is used if a writer feels that he or she has a specific need for one. Some sought to distinguish themselves from someone well-known with a similar name. Others wanted to reflect their chosen genre. It can become a character within the story, like Daniel Handler and William Goldman did respectively with “Lemony Snicket” and “S. Morgenstern”. A writer with multiple works coming out simultaneously might publish some under a pen name and the rest under their real one, which Stephen King did for a while with “Richard Bachman”. If you simply desire privacy, probably your best option then would be something that doesn’t stand out, and even better, isn’t an obvious tribute to anyone or anything special to you.

Perhaps one of the most frequent historical cases has been female authors using male or gender-neutral pseudonyms to give their work a higher chance of success. Some continue to be used, like “George Eliot” (real name Mary Ann Evans). Others no longer are. The novels of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë appear today under their real names. However the sisters first published them respectively as “Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell”. Sadly this trend still seems to continue. Joanne Rowling‘s publisher apparently did not feel the target audience for Harry Potter (teenage boys) would be inclined to read books written by a woman. Rowling subsequently came up with “J. K. Rowling”, when in fact she does not have a middle name (she chose K in honor of her grandmother, Kathleen).

Often, writers become better known by their pen names. A friend who’s a teacher told me of a time when he asked his students if any of them knew who Theodor Geisel was, and no one could answer him. Had he used Geisel’s most frequent pen name (Geisel did use more than one, which you can certainly do), “Dr. Seuss”, they could have answered him right away.

At times I’ve thought about using a pen name. I came up with several possibilities (much like Eric Blair did before he settled on “George Orwell”). I also thought about how my own name could be written in various ways. In the end, I settled for my first and last name, which suits me fine. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that I might still use a pseudonym for something someday. Whether you use your name or a nom de plume is entirely your choice. If you haven’t decided yet, try not to take too long. Always remember, your creative work is your first and foremost concern.

A Contract has been Signed!

Yes! I’m happy to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Mockingbird Lane Press to publish my fantasy novel.

I’m very grateful to all my family and friends for believing in me. I wouldn’t have gotten this far without your support.

Now it’s only a matter of time. Updates will be posted to this blog. Be sure to visit my Facebook page and YouTube channel if you haven’t yet!

Social Media

Social media is without a doubt one of the greatest technological advancements in modern times. Gone are the days when the only way to spread word by handwritten letters or word of mouth. Now in the computer age people can communicate with one another in the blink of an eye. For a writer, social media has become indispensable for informing prospective readers of theirs and their work’s presence, especially for the unknown writer trying to establish a foot in the writing world. Yet social media, like the writing world, is a vast ocean filled with fish. Each writer must find ways to make him or herself stand out.

When I first started writing I used word of mouth to talk about it. Still, I was young and woefully unprepared for marketing (I certainly was not ready for publication either). Throughout high school I was not on social media of any kind, and would really not get into it until after college.

In addition to this website/blog, I have a Facebook page and a YouTube channel. In observing site stats, I can see it has gotten far more referrals from Facebook than anywhere else. Several friends from the Maryland Writers’ Association created a public page that anyone can like and follow. I knew at some point I ought to create one of my own, but it was not until my first writing award in the MWA creative nonfiction contest and agreeing to read from it in Baltimore that I finally got around to that. I invited all my connections to like the page, and still do.

Almost instantly, inquiries were made on the page regarding my website. I hesitated to create one because I hadn’t published much, nor had I found a publisher for my novel. Nevertheless, I wondered if I should start early. At a meeting of the Annapolis chapter of the MWA, I talked about it with a friend. She encouraged me to start right away, so I did. Website building blogging, and specifically WordPress, were the topic of discussion at a previous meeting. So I decided to go with WordPress. I started with one visual theme, but another site I formerly followed already used it. Eventually I grew dissatisfied. I knew I needed to find something different. Eventually after looking at many other themes, I chose the one I have now. Like in all aspects of writing and social media, I have continued to learn through trial and error to refine my site’s image.

My site’s domain name was not my first choice. I originally hoped to use my first and last name, like many writers’ professional websites. Unfortunately it had already been taken. My first post appeared the month after I created my site. In future I hope to use my blog to make announcements about and market my work. For now, I have been discussing my experiences and beliefs I have formed about writing. I do sometimes wish there were more likes and comments, but I have learned it is not always easy to catch people’s interest. Sometimes to do so, the old ways like word of mouth are best. Still, not everyone you invite responds. Some prefer not to subscribe. It is something we all must learn to accept. No one can be forced to subscribe or even view a site. All you can do is invite them.

Social media has a dark side too. We all must strive to remain dignified and respectful when many others will not be, which is not always easy. In the past on Facebook I have at times written without thinking, or were distracted or having a bad day. Some friendships were broken as a result, despite my attempts to make amends. Lesson learned; we are all people with feelings, opinions, and flaws. At times I fear I might become trapped within my own creation. I have to do my best to restrict myself sometimes; to know to when to stop. Social media can be like public appearances in that you need to guard your private life outside of them. Sometimes it feels like I spend too much time on it, and I have to be mindful there too. It is good to unplug sometimes and get away from it all, to enjoy life and discover true inspiration.

As mentioned earlier, I am also using YouTube. I uploaded my first video back in April from the Open Mic I participated in that month. There have not been any more at the moment. In the future I hope to change that, with more appearances, book trailers, and other videos. I have created a presence on social media and acquired a following. I sometimes fear I will run out of ideas to blog about before a publisher accepts my manuscript. I can only hope this platform will continue to grow, and that I will continue to learn new ways to market my work and presence so they stand out.

The Tide of Technology

In the fall, I’ll begin studying for my master’s degree in library science at the University of Maryland. When I applied, I wrote about libraries connecting the past with the present and future. They preserve our written past, as well as offer the latest technologies. I have worked for the Anne Arundel County Public Library for over two years, where I bore witness to an evolution in technology available for patrons. The tide of technology making services more efficient is reflected in my thoughts when I think about publication and marketing, as is the relationship of the past, present, and future.

I grew up after the age of the typewriter, so I never used one. For that I’m glad. I am thankful for the computer. A typewriter to me would be a novelty, something to try out for the fun of it. However I could not imagine writing and editing an entire novel on a typewriter. Nevertheless there were those who did so once. There were once those who didn’t have the internet, and had only physical books to conduct research. When I was at St. Mary’s College and had to write papers, I was able to find sources digitally thanks to that library website and its resources, as well as books. It made life much easier.

It is clear to me that the internet is now becoming the main market for selling and buying books. Nowadays Amazon and other vendors offer greater convenience. You no longer need to go out to a bookstore to search for what you want. You can find it and order it and it comes to you. Even at the library you can find what you want to check out online, place an order, and pick it up at whichever branch you choose rather than browse the shelves. I see many patrons do this all the time. Bookstores it would seem are becoming a thing of the past. I’ve watched several close their doors. While you can still preview books online, for me it isn’t always quite the same as holding it in my hands. Still, I find it very convenient. The internet is essential now to marketing books to as wide an audience as possible. I had to start early and build a following with this blog and website, and other forms of social media.

Even books themselves are embracing technology in new forms. eBooks are now available. They weren’t years ago. I’ve seen them at the library, along with audio books. Once again, to market and sell books as much as possible, I must accept that people prefer different forms of book reading even if I may never use them personally. As a writer, for me nothing will beat the feel  of a printed book, to flip through its pages and know I wrote those words. In addition, I find it easier to concentrate with printed page. But yes, others have different tastes. I’ll have to understand these new forms regardless, especially if I continue to work in a library. Some people drive a lot and love listening to audio books. When I was little, before bed I listened to a few children’s books on audio cassette (another technology now a relic of the past), including The Polar Express and The Tale of Peter Rabbit. So perhaps there is a chance I may try other forms of books in my personal life.

Who knows now what the future will bring? Who knows how my future novels will be received? Who knows where this library science master’s degree will take me during and after my studies. I’ll do my best to be ready in the present, but always remember the past. Libraries to me are a community center where people can have access to technology but also walk through a museum preserving our written past. Having studied history, I treasure the past, for it shows how we came to be where we are now. So while embracing the tide of technology, I mustn’t let it wash away the past altogether.

Rejection, Criticism, & A Writer’s Virtues

I didn’t think I would get the latest draft of my novel fully assembled before the new year. But to my surprise, I did. So my writing resolutions for 2016 are to secure a publisher for it and to start serious work on at least one new manuscript. However neither I know will be easy. It’ll be hard to move on after working on this manuscript for so long, and getting on the road to publication for it will undoubtedly bring something writers, especially beginners, don’t like to face, but all writers have to endure: rejection.

Rejection hits hard. Like criticism it tears you apart, makes you feel as if what you poured your heart into is worthless. I have taken both hard, and in some cases I reacted badly. But they are learning experiences, not the end. I’ve learned as much, and am continuing to learn. Change your perspective when receiving criticism and rejections, and you’ll realize it’s a moment for personal growth. You made a good effort, you can now do better. After all, with the effort made, you cannot give up now. I know I cannot, not after all these years.

Patience, diligence, temperance, and humility are the chief virtues of any writer who must succeed, I believe. Writing and publication take time. I’ve learned a desire to rush to being in print will not bear the sweetest, ripest fruit. Diligence enables a writer to endure rejection and criticism, and to keep trying. Pick up any bestselling or classic novel, and you can be guaranteed virtually every time what you’ve read not only is not the first draft, but the author had to endure rejections and criticisms the same as you. With patience and diligence they endured, and became the role models for us who follow.

I must keep trying with this novel in querying agents and hopefully publishers too. While I certainly want it to be a success enjoyed by many, I must also accept the possibility that this book may not be the first published. For many writers it is a fact, their first published novel is not the first they wrote.

A classic example is Charlotte Brontë. We all know her for Jane Eyre, her first published novel, but not the first she wrote. Her first was rejected by every publisher she sent it to. But she persisted and wrote Jane Eyre. The publisher to whom she would send it had rejected her first book, but encouraged her to submit other works. Her success shows a thoughtful rejection is always preferable to a hasty acceptance. There are always vanity publishers who will take what you write right away.

Temperance and humility come into play when dealing with those who reject and criticize. Humility is a double-edged sword, in that while you must continue to break new ground and not be beat down, at the same time you must accept that you can make mistakes, otherwise you will never grow or make your writing better.

Be courteous and kind when receiving rejections and criticism. It’s hard, and has been hard for me. If you take it hard, even if you don’t agree with their opinions, don’t let it hurt those who are trying to help you. If they treat you harshly in response, you are probably better off then not working with them. Even so, if you ever react badly, you must always apologize no matter how they treat you back. Remember the next time to work together. Explain why you are hurt, but do not take it out on them.

Writing is hard, but if it weren’t, I doubt I’d be as passionate about it as I have become. For all you aspiring authors out there, take it from one who has endured hardship, self-doubt, and emotional turmoil. I still face it, and likely always will. But I cannot let it control me. I tell myself as well as you: endure, learn, be constructive, kind, and you will succeed.