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Owner and publisher of four weekly newspapers in Mississippi, Smith Faithing: A Reconstructive Method. One evening in grad school, half-drunk and Googling my own name, I found a blog run by one of my fiction students.
When I started teaching creative writing in , my syllabus assigned almost exclusively white male authors of realist short fiction. I was 23 and in grad school and just trying to survive. I was not a serious reader as a college student, and so most of my reading was either assigned to me, or randomly pulled from anthologies. My college courses were heavily focused on dead American men like , , and , with perhaps a single story by or an excerpt from A few professors pushed me. This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Upload Sign In Join. Yes, what all of you newly well-lit souls are thinking right now is quite true: those submissions may well have been rejected at first glance by a Millicent in a bad mood. Heck, there are agencies where a manuscript that designates paragraphs by skipping a line between paragraphs rather than by indenting simply would not be read. Yes, even if the writers submitted those manuscripts via e-mail. Why the knee-jerk response? Well, although literacy has become decreasingly valued in the world at large, the people who have devoted themselves to bringing good writing to publications still tend to take it awfully darned seriously.
Why, you ask?
Including the first paragraph of every chapter, incidentally. Yes, Virginia, published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Again, much like blog format, seen here in all of its glory. Why surprising? Well, since the entire manuscript should be double-spaced with indented paragraphs, there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break.
In a double-spaced document, a skipped line means a section break, period. So why do aspiring writers so often blithely send off manuscripts with skipped lines, single-spaced or otherwise?
But — feel free to shout it along with me now; you know the words — a professional book manuscript or proposal is not, nor should it be, formatted like any published piece of writing. Manuscripts should not resemble books. Why were these symbols ever used at all? To alert the typesetter that the missing line of text was intentional. That being said, although most Millicents will roll their eyes upon seeing one of these old-fashioned symbols, they tend not to take too much umbrage at it, because the is in fact proper for short story format.
A writer can usually get away with including them. To be fair, I know a grand total of one agent who allows his clients to use short-story formatting in book manuscripts. But only if they write literary fiction and have a long resume of short story publications. He is more than capable of conveying this preference to his clients, however. Titles of songs and publications, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized. According to this informal and often not entirely sober polling data, an aspiring writer would have to be consulting a very, very outdated list of formatting restrictions to believe that underlining is ever acceptable.
Again, since your future agent is going to make you change all of that underlining to italics anyway, you might as well get out of the habit of underlining now. Fair warning: if you consult an old style manual or a website that is relying upon an old style manual , you may be urged to underline the words and phrases mentioned above. And just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these.
They are different fields, and have different standards. And although I remain fond of typewriters — growing up in a house filled with writers, the sound used to lull me to sleep as a child — the fact is, the publishing industry now assumes that all manuscripts are produced on computers. I hope so: violations of this particular rule are rejection-triggers more often than not. Calm down: the rules governing their use are not at all complicated.
Before you make the choice, do be aware that many agents and editors actively dislike this practice. Their logic, as I understand it: a good writer should be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type. There are, however, many other agents and editors who think it is perfectly fine — but you are unlikely to learn which is which until after you have sent in your manuscript, alas.
Which means — again, alas — there is no fail-safe for this choice.
I have a few more rules to cover, but this seems like a dandy place to break for the day. My apologies for the must-have-been-agonizing delay between the prize posts for the first-place winners of the Author! While all of that portentous rumbling is still hanging in the air, let me take a moment to air one of my pet peeves: gratuitous quotation marks.
Was he in some doubt about whether it was my real name — as in, This belongs to the so-called Anne Mini? Did he mistakenly believe that he was shipping this not particularly personal piece of equipment not to my PT, but to a monogrammer, and he wanted to make sure the right spelling stitched into it? Or had someone immediately behind him just shouted my name, and he was quoting her?
Was this merely a case of forgotten attribution? Is this an obscure quote from a book I do not know — a minor work of Charles Dickens, perhaps? Or, still more disturbingly, is this kind soul trying to let me know, albeit in code, that somebody out there is talking about me? None of the above, probably: my guess would be that the guy with the marking pen thought, along with a surprisingly high percentage of the marking-things population, that quotation marks mean the same thing as underlining.
He is mistaken. So how should one use quotation marks? How about reserving them for framing things that characters actually say? I know; radical. I do not bring any of this up lightly — or, indeed, purely to rid the world of a few more sets of perplexingly-applied quotation marks. Actually, she prefers to be able to answer all of them by the bottom of p. So when a fresh, new narrative voice that does not appear to fit comfortably within an existing book category, our Millie is left in something of a quandary.
How, she wonders, is she going to make the case for this book? Or do I sense some puzzled head-scratching out there? In the known world? Does this take place in a different world, or this one? Well caught, head-scratchers — and in answer to that last question, a resounding yes. An additional yet similar world gives these voyagers of the early nineteenth century more seas to sail and challenges to meet. Uniquely, they are aware of and able to control their journeys between the two worlds.
An interesting notion, right? Universally, the judges felt that in fairness to Millicent, some fantasy elements should appear on page 1. Otherwise, they argued, it was simply too likely that when she came upon fantastic happenings later in the manuscript, she might conclude — wrongly in this case — that Dave did not know that he was genre-jumping, or that the authorial choice to present a fantasy premise in a completely dedicated naval fantasy voice was in fact a choice , not a misunderstanding of how book categories work.
True, there is not a great deal of demonstrable overlap between the readership of these two categories.
Which is why I am bound to mention marketing advice agreed-upon by a full half of the judges: since this is such a strong Naval Adventure voice, why not write a straight Naval Adventure first, land an agent that way, and then segue into fantasy with the NEXT book? Also, if an agency is not open to the possibility of combining these two disparate categories in a single book — or, in this case, a series — its Millicent may well reject the query on that basis alone.