I’ve been following an excellent blog called Author! Author! by Anne Mini (the link is in my blogroll, or click on the title in this post). She has dedicated her time to giving writers very detailed advice about everything from character-building to contracts. For some weird reason my browser hates to magnify her page, but I’ll squint because everything she says is worth it.
Her last series of posts is on manuscript formatting. Now, I thought I had that down. Turns out that a newbie like me is also an idiot who doesn’t know poo from Pooh. Her advice has prompted a spate of revision from which my poor book will hopefully emerge in a more marketable form.
Before reformatting, I had to address word count. Most genre books average around 80,000 – 90,000 words. A few push 100,000 but not many, unless you’re talking about fantasy, which can end up with crazy word counts because of the need to establish an alternate universe. My crime thriller started at 110,000, then during rewrites swelled to 125,000. At last revision, it had gone down to 112,200.
The longer a book is, the more paper it take to print, the more it costs, and it’s less likely an agent is going to bite. It’s not The Lord of the Rings, but it was still too damn long. 4100 words have come out and are still bleeding from the page.
As I posted in “Slice and Dice,” extras can go bye-bye and will reduce your count considerably. A long description of a place or someone’s outfit can take up a lot of room. So can interior monologue. It’s tempting to go all stream-of-consciousness on the reader when your character is contemplating something, but keep it short. I cut a ton of blah-de-blah and I’m still doing it.
Stephen King once said, “I write like fat ladies diet.” On and on and on. If you’re Stephen King, you can do whatever you want. Under the Dome is huge; you could use it to stop a fire door. But go back to some of his earlier works, specifically Carrie, his first published novel, and the difference is vast. Carrie is noticeably shorter. Experience doesn’t always mean longer books, but by the time you publish forty-plus novels, you better have a handle on what you’re doing. Under the Dome is long because it has to be, and because SK’s publishers know that his fans will buy it even if they have to cart it around in a wheelbarrow. You, the unknown, will not be so lucky.
With blogs like Ms Mini’s and other sources of information, proper formatting for a book manuscript isn’t some arcane knowledge writers must travel to a guru’s cave to learn. There really isn’t any excuse except being too lazy to seek it, or too egotistical to believe that one’s precious manuscript might need reformatting, editing or some other help to catch a jaded agent’s eye.
Fonts can make a big difference. I’m not talking about shrinking from 12-point to ten. That would cause severe eyestrain and land your manuscript in the round file immediately. I mean choosing a professional font, which is NOT Edwardian Script or Jokerman. I was using Courier New, an acceptable font that is easy for me to read, but it’s bigger than Times New Roman. When I changed fonts, the page count went down so far I wasn’t sure I was looking at the same book. It looks better, too.
It’s still too long.
One caveat: when extensively revising and reformatting, don’t forget to regularly SAVE YOUR WORK. Something went wrong with my document and I lost all the chapter reordering and cuts that I had done past a certain point. I had to redo them from scratch. Lucky for me my notes page remained intact. Blargh!
I’ll let Ms Mini explain the finer points of professional manuscript formatting to you. Please read her blog. If you learn as much as possible about proper presentation and querying, then the only excuse you’ll have left for the file box full of rejections is that you just can’t write, or you’ve just quit trying.
If you have any comments on the subject of formatting and presentation, please share below.