Sunday, September 07, 2008

Manuscript Madness

I suppose there just might be one or two peeps out there waiting on news of progress with my search for an agent. And to you I say: "no news is good news." :-\

Actually I did have one reply. The day after Labor (sic) Day. My BS radar detected right away that it was a bit on the quick side to be a "real" reply, and sure enough it was a polite but firm proforma reply just basically saying "thanks, we got your submission, and if we're interested we'll get back to you in 8-12 weeks."

At least it wasn't a 'no' eh?

A quick calculation told me that we'd be into the next millennium if I waited serially for each agent to reply, so this automated response did have a positive effect. It decided me to continue sending queries out. In small batches. It also gave me a small problem. The next agent on my list was happy to accept the whole of the first chapter, as an attachment. Which meant I had to make sure the formatting was right. At that, dear reader, is easier said than done.

Check out online advice sites for manuscript formatting. You'll find a bewildering array of advice, much of it contradictory. OK, some things they do agree on. Most start off by saying that if agents have guidelines of their own, it's important to follow them. To the letter. No problem with this sensible suggestion. Trouble is, the majority don't have any formatting guidelines, so I have to fall back on the guidelines on other sites. Again, there's a lot of agreement on the simple stuff. Double line spacing is de rigueur - a hang over from the days when people actually made hand-written notes on physical bits of paper. Oh. They still do? Yes, much of the publishing industry has yet to catch on with the idea that modern word processors have commenting capability. So get those lines double spaced young man!

I knew that from the off anyway, so no problem. Big margins are also a common feature. How big? Ah, now we start getting into choppier waters. An inch all round, says one site. An inch top and bottom, but one-and-a-half inches left and right, says another. Anywhere between 1 and 1.5 inches all round is good, says Wikipedia. Half an inch at the top and 1.25" on the other three sides, says my Novel Writing text book. Does it matter? As long as there's space for notes in the margins, right? Wrong. Some guidance suggests that the margins have to be set to ensure 25 lines per page and an average of 10 words per line. This supports the word counting estimation theory of 250 words per page, for those sites that counsel against using your word processor's word counting feature.

Most also agree that emphasis should be shown using underlining, which is always visible. It's changed later by the typesetter. And that a mono-spaced font such as Courier New must be used, preferably at the relatively large size of 12pt. One site got totally confused by the meaning of "Courier 12" and another stated emphatically that font is irrelevant as long as your m/s is readable. And that last statement was, supposedly, based on a straw poll of 500 agents where 98% expressed no preference for font. I guess this is another area where history still holds sway in many places, but is gradually being replaced by pragmatism. Still, in a world where you feel you must do NOTHING to spike your chances of success, it's Courier New 12pt for me. Which looks weird when you first start to use it, but quickly becomes natural. Indeed, since it's a font I use for nothing else, it's a visible reminder that I'm writing for myself instead of "working" for someone else.

Section breaks are an area of great confusion. Where the point of view changes, and/or the scene. In printed work it's common for these to be indicated with white space, but most guidance absolutely forbids this. Section breaks should be indicated with a single, centred hash character (#). However many advice sites don't mention section breaks at all, and one states categorically that you may show a break with two (double) line spaces! Argh!

But the greatest confusion is saved for the cover page, and the page header. On the cover page should the author's address be at top left, or centred halfway down? Where does the word count go? Should the genre be stated? Each set of guidelines has its own mix, and the individual page headers are even worse. You should have surname/novel title/page number at the top left of every page, just like that with slashes between. No, they should be centred. No, they should be on the right. No, your surname and page number should be on the right, with the title of the work on the left (optionally followed by chapter number). No! The left-hand side is for surname and title, the right for your page number.


In the end though, they all mention the same information, so it stays the way I've done it (is my view) unless a particular agent wants it a different way. And it's only a page header anyway. Reformatting takes all of 10 seconds.

1 comment:

Gloria Horsehound said...

Thanks for the info Dig. Now all I need is an idea...