#getpublished – format your script

Before your script leaves home, let’s make sure it’s in the right shape. What do publishers and agents expect to see on your page, apart from your undiluted genius?

In today’s competitive world, having your precious words in the wrong font and size might well mean they will be binned unseen. Writers are expected to provide what is asked for and to the kind people who are reading the right format all day, any variation will leap out.

You will find submission guidelines on agents’ and publishers’ websites. It may seem obvious but please read the submission guidelines of each agent and publisher you try, with your very best attention to detail. That way you’re already a leap ahead of the thousands of writers who don’t. Sometimes they have a submissions template or proposal form for you to complete.

If they spell out their requirements, this is the sort of thing you will find:

  • Printed submissions only. No beautiful calligraphy or hand written exercise books. We are after a clean, professional look.
  • 12-point.
  • Double-spacing.
  • A plain, simple font like Times New Roman, Calibri or Arial. Your friends might be panting for something off a Whitby headstone IMG_E1877 or a squillionaire’s signature but professionals do not have the time to fight their way through it.
  • Wide margins, about one inch to the left, two to the right.
  • One page per sheet, one side only.
  • In a header show the title of your book, your name and a contact email or phone number, all in small capitals or italics to distinguish from the text.
  • Number your pages as you would a book, running through the whole book, not chapter by chapter.
  • Start each chapter on its own page, about a third of the way down that page.
  • No justification – rough edges on the right are fine.
  • On your un-numbered front page, the title appears centred half way down with your name/pseudonym, and in the lower right corner your name appears again with your contact details.
  • Some aspects of layout are down to each publisher’s house style. Publishers vary in how they deal with dialogue, paragraph indents and spacing, and new chapter layout. They probably won’t notice if you follow their usual practice; they will if you don’t.
  • There is no need to plaster your work with statements protecting your copyright in the UK. You keep it automatically.
  • No need to bind your pages as if the book has already been published. In fact, it can be a bad idea: some agents and publishers see it as a suggestion that you’re not as open to improvement as they’d like you to be. All submissions are seen as work in progress. It’s best though to make sure your pages will not fall on the floor the minute they’re touched. Michael Legat suggests a ‘wallet-style folder’.
  • Your biography need not go in the typescript – its correct place is an economical paragraph in your email or letter of submission.

This is only a guide – please check through the submission guidelines of each agent and publisher you try, while you’re putting your submission together.

You may well think you’ve been attending to formatting as you go but it’s amazing how often word-processing software falters, allowing fonts, margins and type sizes to jump and slip. It makes sense to give it that final check all the way through before it goes.

It also gives you a sense of the enormity of what you’ve achieved, that you are scrolling through something that looks more and more like a professionally written book. Congratulations on getting this far! It’s time (again) for the hillside exercise – let’s call it the mountainside exercise now.

Now that your novel is ready to go,  we’ll look next week at finding your ideal agent or publisher.

Happy writing!

 

#getpublished – 7 things agents and publishers take for granted

Before you send out your draft, let’s take a moment to step inside the minds of professional agents and publishers. Imagine them on their Monday morning commute hoping that today maybe … maybe … they’ll find the Next Big Thing in the book world.

They know what they’re looking for and in a way they don’t. So, let’s look first at what they take for granted:

  1. Spelling, grammar and syntax

Agents and publishers have usually spent most of their years in the company of wonderful writing and have often studied English literature in one form or another. They tend to see competence with spelling, grammar and syntax as the first skill of anyone who wants to be published.

You can feel cross-eyed by the time you’ve checked your submission a dozen times, but another time might make all the difference. Spellcheck has its pits and traps, and sometimes a shady sense of humour.

Grammar and syntax are about the subtle business of putting your words in the right order and making sure, for example, that your sentences have a verb and subject that match. It’s our job to play with all this and make the language dance but we need to judge when and how much we can bend the rules, and above all we should be clear.

There are plenty of resources to help you, including a wonderful section in Stephen King’s On Writing. This is our Highway Code and to get anywhere on the publishing industry’s map, we need to know our stuff.

Haven’t there been classic writers who couldn’t spell their own names? Stand up, Mr Shakespeare? Who twisted the language like a rambling rose, especially in the voice of a first person narrator? Stand up for applause, Mark Twain and Huck Finn. Of-course there have but if you are a so-far unknown writer trying to break in, it’s wise to make it easy for yourself. Agents and publishers used to take time to correct and upgrade a writer’s text but they can’t afford it these days and since the proliferation of university courses, they are used to work that’s polished and honed.

If you write well but need help with these basics, please find a way to get it before your work goes out. Pay if you have to: it’ll pay off.

  1. Formatting and layout

In short, obey all submission guidelines first, last and always. You can find these on a publisher’s or agent’s website. There will be more about this in tomorrow’s post.

  1. Articulacy

You have the power of conveying things well in words. A clear, simple, uncluttered style will be your friend. This is why professional journalists often transfer successfully to fiction; they are trained in cutting superfluous words like adjectives and adverbs and getting quickly to the point.

  1. A positive, life-enhancing vibe

I’m being controversial here. Aren’t writers entitled to write whatever they want? Isn’t negativity as much part of life as positivity? True, but I beg you to pity the poor agent or sifter who trudges through the unsolicited pile. Even if you’re describing life’s direst circle of hell, please manage to give a sense in your submission that, one way or another, your characters will learn that life is worth living. Not only is this kind to agents and publishers, optimism sells better. For those of you who disagree, stay true to your inner light. Here is my favourite cartoon – behind me as I type:

Golding cartoon

  1. Storytelling skills

Agents and publishers have hawk-like focus for who has good storytelling skills when they’re scanning a submission. They can tell within a paragraph or two.

Low patches in your writing energy can be an opportunity to freshen up your skills and get a new perspective on how your story might work best. Writing exercises and morning pages or journal are like scales and arpeggios for musicians – they keep you limber. Keep reading and learning, seeking out advice and help in as many places as you can. Keep editing and rewriting, cranking up the quality of your script.

And, as Elmore Leonard said, don’t bother to write the bits readers skip.

  1. Talent

What’s ‘talent’ doing here? How can agents and publishers take talent for granted? Because if they get distracted from your script and forget to pick it up again, another dozen or more talented submissions are waiting for them that day. Because if talent is there without all these other elements, it won’t be able to shine.

  1. The secret ingredient

Agents and publishers make most of their money from their existing clients and backlists of deceased classic writers. It’s amazing in tough times that they bother with unknown writers at all and many are choosy about when they open a submissions window. They know however that new writers are the life blood of the industry.

So, when they pick up a new, unsolicited typescript, what are they looking for?

  • A strong, unusual voice in
  • a cracking story
  • of high importance featuring
  • great, memorable characters and
  • drama (plausible high stakes, conflict, plenty of dilemmas). And
  • if possible, a powerful, enduring truth told in a new, exciting way.

These are what make agents and publishers lean forward, exhale with relief and turn more of your pages. They are what every post in this blog has been about and I put it here free to do what I can to help great new writers who don’t have the money or opportunity for a creative writing university degree.

I’ll leave you with Stephen King’s lessons on how to be a great writer. Turning off the television and picking up a book instead is in there, yes 🙂

More tomorrow. Happy writing!