What Makes a Book Good?

what makes a book good according to kafka

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.… [W]e need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief. (Franz “little ray of sunshine” Kafka)

You really have to wish Kafka had written a review of Pride and Prejudice.

Much as I love the Immortal K, and I do, I don’t identify with his arguably narrow literary taste. There is more than one way to bust up the frozen sea inside, and some of us are more tropical on the interior than arctic. Most readers like a good stab and the occasional wallop, and goodness knows there’s nothing like being thrown under a train, but as there is more to life than grieving, there is more to curling up with a book than being overwhelmed by disaster.

Sometimes, for example, we read a book because we want to be scared witless. Sometimes we enjoy living in a world where conspiracy theories are true. Sometimes we like to beat up criminals with our hands and feet or brains or side arms or special powers. Sometimes we like to die; sometimes we like to come back. Sometimes we want to get married. Sometimes we want other people to fight over us. Sometimes it all comes down to a horse or a dress or a car. Sometimes sheer silliness is sublime.

What makes a book good or a classic or a guilty pleasure or the material evidence of a human soul? With brains as big and crinkly as ours, how can we weigh and measure the merit of a book based on criteria that may cause one big, crinkly brain to shimmer and wag but leave another inert? Such questions lead to bloodied fields of uncivil discourse and howls of “troll” from earnest readers, but in such a cause, even P. G. Wodehouse may provide the axe that breaks the frozen sea.

Is Self-Publishing a Scam?

First, terminology. Traditional publishing means someone chose to publish an author’s book with the intention of making money from sales of it. Self-publishing means that an author is publishing the book at his or her own expense.

Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishing is where a company takes a look at your book, says, Why, yes, we can make this puppy part of our forthcoming catalog and distribute it so that we can make some money from people buying it. Within traditional publishing, there are the Big Houses (bigger and fewer of them all the time) and the small presses. In traditional publishing, a book will be edited and copyedited, turned into galleys (test pages, or proofs) and proofread before going to the printer. The printer will supply a copy (bluelines) of what the book will look like when the presses roll, which the publisher will review for final approval. Then the printed books are either warehoused or distributed to sales outlets. Marketing includes providing the book cover (aimed at capturing the attention of the target customer)—artwork, jacket blurbs, quotes, and a sexy author picture and bio—sending out review copies; ensuring placement in stores; booking tours and interviews; and advertising. The Big Houses can provide more of everything, but even they concentrate their resources where they expect the greatest return on their investment. For an author without name recognition and a large readership, the process may not be much different from that of a small press.

Small presses range widely in mission, quality of product, and contractual arrangements. Book tours and signings, interviews, social media hustling, and even advertising may fall on the author to provide. A small press will provide at least a copyedit and the design stuff and arrange for printing and/or ebook uploading. Some small presses pay only a royalty and some expect the author to pay for any copies they want. Like large publishers, however, they expect to make money from sales of your books—not from fees charged to you.


Self-publishing means that the decision to publish and the costs involved are all on the author. Before ebooks and publishing on demand (POD), companies existed that would lay out and print books for an author for a fee. There are still companies, such as XLibris, who provide this service. It is costly, and sales are entirely author driven. It has derisively been called vanity publishing, because these companies make their money on the “vain” hopes of writers who had been rejected by traditional publishers.

It is still difficult for authors to generate large sales numbers on their own, but the cost of self-publishing has substantially decreased. Uploading an ebook to the major distributors of ebooks costs nothing, and the percentage on sales is greater than the average royalty from a press. Therefore, an author who invests nothing, loses nothing and may even make something.

For the self-publisher who wants a print book, there are POD services, such as CreateSpace and LuLu, that substantially reduce the cost of printing a small number of books. This is a huge advantage over the 1,000 copy print runs that used to be required.

There is, however, a catch. Publishing houses employ people, and these people all do something of value in delivering a book to market. An author who writes a book and then uploads it for distribution takes a shortcut to an unfinished product. So what does a self-published book need to match the quality of traditional releases?

High Quality Self-Publishing

Development. Fiction or nonfiction, a book needs a steely-eyed once over to make sure that it will hold the reader’s attention, not embarrass the author, and be worth further time and money. For the writer on a tight budget, this can be accomplished to some extent with manuscript appraisals or beta reads (and not by people who have to face you at Thanksgiving) or workshops. Working with a writing coach is another way to get helpful feedback. A development editor (also called a substantive editor) can really tighten a book up and bring out the best in it. This is a highly skilled editor with a big toolbox. A development editor will tell you when and how to pick up the pace, excise fluff, make your characters more compelling.

Copyediting. This is where a book gets spiffed up. A development editor will probably mark an obvious error, such as a misspelling, but there is an expectation (an inevitability, actually) that rewrites and revisions will introduce a whole ‘nother round of errors. A copyedit is done after the manuscript has taken its final shape.

Cover design. Covers need artwork and typography that will capture eyeballs. A pretty picture is all well and good, but an effective cover design is the sum of all kinds of parts. It must appeal to readers interested in the book’s subject or genre, and it must be easy to make out as a thumbnail.

Layout. E-readers accommodate book formatting only up to a point and will default to the format seen most often with ebooks. There are good reasons for this, though it is extremely restricting for page designers. It is still important, however, to upload a book file that will look polished and attractive. Look at an ebook from a large publisher, then cruise through the indies. The difference can be dramatic. Amateurish looking pages undermine credibility and kill sales.

Proofreading. Even ebooks should get one last review from a fresh pair of eyes before the reading public gets its hands on it. No single pass will catch every error, no matter how good the editor. Complaints about typos and spelling errors arise not so much from careless copyediting but from the reduced number of passes the text gets before release to the public. Best case scenario is to have an entirely fresh pair of eyes proofread the book. Professional proofreaders can be hired. In a pinch, a beta editor can sometimes be recruited at this stage and may even provide a review or blurb if they like the book.

QA. When your book is formatted and uploaded to an ebook platform, the author and the formatter should check through every page, cover to last page, before making the book available to the public.  This is the ebook equivalent of checking printers’ bluelines. Weird stuff can happen, even to a well-formatted book, or you may want to tweak some things to make the book more attractive or easier to navigate.

Self-Publisher as Indie

So, what is the difference between paying for all these “extras” through a company like XLibris and hiring people to do them yourself? Simply, control and price. The more active the “self” in self-publishing, the more control you have over the end result and the cost for it. Hiring your own contractors means selecting them personally based on criteria you believe is important. Arriving at the cost and the services that will answer your book’s needs comes after a process of negotiation and consultation.

Is self-publishing a scam? That depends on whether an author has been deliberately led to believe that he or she has paid for something they will not receive. The dismal reputation of vanity publishing arose because hopeful writers naively believed that simply by printing their book, it would automatically appear on store shelves and readers would naturally discover it through browsing. The invisible process by which books were (and are still) distributed to stores, however, posed a far greater hurdle than any self-published author could surmount—this was obscured by the sales pitch. The company never expected the books to sell, but the dreams of authors were a lucrative source of upfront cash. Caveat emptor.

That doesn’t mean that self-publishing—or “independent publishing,” as many dedicated self-publishing authors prefer—is a waste of time and resources. There are more worthy manuscripts written than all the publishers in the country can take on. Additionally, there are writers with talent and vision that need help bringing their works up to their potential. Many writers don’t care if their books never turn a profit, but only wish to see them realized as finished works. Others are willing to quit their day job and make cold calls, spend hours on social media, schedule book signings, fill their trunk with books, and crisscross the country on a promotional junket.

Self-publishing enables the release of literally millions of works, and sales of these indie titles are a growing share of the ebook market. Successful indies argue that they make more money with the 70% royalty from Kindle sales than from the 12-25% royalty they might earn at a traditional house. Competition with millions of other titles, however, means that sales are hard earned. An indie makes all the decisions but makes all the investments, as well, and takes all the risks.

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Author Blog: A Promotional Tool


At the moment, it is August 2014, and authors not in the international star category must have blogs. You ask why. Wheels within wheels, I say. It’s all about promotion. To push sales of your book, you need to build a water cooler where your readers can come and pass ‘round the dixie cup. The water cooler can be a blog or a website with a blog; it just can’t be erected in the wilderness if the object is to attract readers.

The Do I Have to Have a Blog FAQ

Q: Isn’t a website enough?
A: No. Google wants you to have a lot of activity on your website, and the easiest way to do that is with a blog.

Q: Can’t I just put up a blog and not have a website?
A: With a good blog platform, you can have what is essentially a pretty nice websitish blog.

Q: Isn’t my Facebook page already doing everything I need?
A: Not everyone is on Facebook, and some people don’t want to go there. But you can write your posts on your blog and share them on your Facebook page. Ditto for Google+ and any other social media sites you like to use. And all that activity will please Google.

Blogging and Liking It

There are other considerations, aside from driving up your Google ranking, which may be more personally rewarding. Presumably, you write about something that interests you. If you think it is interesting enough to write about, you may really enjoy sharing your knowledge or experiences on a blog. Plus, there are other people out there who are interested in knowing what you know. These folks may find your blog because of the subject matter and hang around to buy a book.

As a practical tool for managing your event calendar, blog posts should alert your fans to signings, tours, interviews, and upcoming releases.

Finally, writers write. Your blog is your marginalia, your journal, your correspondence, your samples, and your resume. Your posts are frequent exercises for developing your writing chops. It’s like working out at one of those gyms with nothing but a window between you and the sidewalk. The foot traffic will evaluate how fit and strong you are as a writer by what they see on your blog, so don’t get sloppy!

Great Writers’ Blogs

Kathryn Lang-Slattery’s website concentrates on the subject matter of her book and is a fantastic example of an all-around useful site. Her blog keeps fans updated on the book’s progress and provides additional information that is well written and relevant.

Eva Vanrell’s blog doesn’t call itself that, but her site is porous with links that take the visitor from post to post to post. Vanrell’s pages are simple and attractive, and she manages to avoid the curse of many richly developed sites–the dreaded cluttered screen. She invites the reader to know her characters and shares her progress and insights.

The Anne R. Allen blog contains this indispensable post on blogging blunders authors should avoid. Allen promotes her own novels in the right margin while graciously sharing truly useful advice—which pulls in new readers like you—in the main section.

Criticism: How to Handle What People Say

Criticism isn't always helpful

Writing is hard and writing is personal. There is nothing quite so crushing as mom’s faint praise unless it’s frank, harsh, lacerating criticism from someone who thinks “truth” is a blunt weapon.

What you write reveals a lot about you—your ignorance, your unorthodox approach to spelling, your secret principles, what you dream about, and all your worrisome complexes. It takes a whopping load of courage to share the fresh, raw pages of a novel manuscript with others. Fear of exposure, however, should not prevent doctor visits or editorial review.

Criticism and Conflict of Interest

Rule No. 1 of receiving criticism is: Consider the source. Mom, Mrs. Kravitz, and your subordinates at the office cannot under any circumstance give you an unbiased appraisal. Period. In sharing your book with the people in your personal universe, you should not be looking for the unvarnished truth. What you really want from what I will call critics of the First Circle, is encouragement.

You are blessed if “I loved it!” is followed by “I was a little confused in the fourth chapter when Shirley called her boyfriend Jason—wasn’t his name James?”  1) You have a fan, and 2) It’s nice that error was caught by a safety reader and not an outsider.

Sometimes, however, Uncle Bob will tell you that you lost him when you went into that girlie stuff, or your brutally honest BFF will confess that she’s just never going to find time to read it, or Grandma may return it with all the errors marked in red pen but without a single positive note in the margins.

The fact is, these people—who love you dearly—may feel like you’ve given them an onerous chunk of homework and may not be comfortable with the pop quiz they know is coming. They are almost certainly not trained to see the finished diamond in your rough manuscript, and they may not even be inclined as readers toward the kind of book you have written. Glean any constructive criticism you can from the first circle and all the encouragement offered, but don’t sweat it if they aren’t able to tell you what you need to hear.

Peer Pressure and Constructive Guilt

Rule No. 2 is Test the Authority of Your Peers. Before there were writing workshops, there were coteries, coffeeshops, salons, and milieux. Artists were thrown together by society kingpins who specialized in fostering culture, or else an artist fled society with or without his friends and drew followers to his little sitting room where booze and bonhomie went round with the sharing of works in progress. This is the Second Circle.

As a modern equivalent, you can join a writing group or assemble a panel of beta readers. You can blog your progress. Workshops operate on the Weight Watchers principle that if you are being monitored for progress, progress you will make. You’ll receive encouragement and advice from those engaged in a similar struggle.

But things can go wrong: If your Pynchonesque epic is turning into a domestic comedy or the dry sardonic wit has been drained from your warrior princess, it may be that the influence of your peers is having a counterproductive effect on your work. If a beta reader informs you that the brassy heroine with whom you closely identify is a brainless floozy, the rest of his/her critique may be colored by a worldview or literary aesthetic that is out of tune with your own. Seek criticism that takes your book on its own terms and helps to refine rather than re-envision.

Comments from Your Editor

Rule No. 3 states, Choose Your Editor As You Would a Godparent. You may think the world of your brilliant and charming Aunt Kate and still not want her helping to raise your children. By the same principle, a good editor is not necessarily the right editor. Any good editor will find errors and spot problems, but not all good editors will spot the same problems or even consider as problems the same things. If you are fond of wordplay and rogue punctuation, you may not be well served by a strict constructionist; if you have produced a delightfully Dickensian doorstop, you may not be in the right corner with a faithful adherent of the Elmore Leonard school.

An editor who understands your authorial intent will provide feedback—yes, criticism—that will make sense to you, illuminate your own dim ideas, and tell you when you’ve gone off the rails. Yes, if you write a 2,000 word conversation full of impassioned dialog and crackling atmosphere that basically repeats a previous—and better placed—conversation, your editor may point out that readers will find it tedious. Don’t be hurt, even if you worked really hard on that scene and it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. Your editor (the Third Circle) may have a suggestion for incorporating what you love about this scene into the earlier scene, or you may have an ingenious solution of your own—either way, the book is suddenly better, stronger. And if your editor tells you something you don’t agree with—say, that your protagonist is a bit whiny—there may be something deficient in your presentation of that character. Consider whether you have supplied a full and true picture of the character before deciding that if Hamlet can be interpreted different ways your character can be too.

Stand by Your Book

Rule No. 4, the Golden Rule, is, It’s Your Book, You Can Do What You Want. Even an editor who is otherwise totally on the same page with you can make a lame suggestion, misinterpret a regional idiom, think your hero is a jerk, or tire of your narrator’s drug-induced circular reasoning. If you wrote it that way on purpose and stand by your original decision because it is integral to the work as you envision it, keep it. The book is entirely yours, and criticism is always yours to cherry pick—ignore it or make use of it, but don’t be afraid of it.


Narrative Pace: Too Much Information

Even a thriller can drag.

Knowing how much information to provide is one of the skills a writer hones to get really good at his or her craft. A love scene may require a different set of data—light, scent, the nuances of sound, the shape and degree of moisture present in a human eye. A torture-style interrogation may also use light, stink, noise, and the amount of white showing in a human eye, not to mention the beads of sweat. However, not only is the choice of details different in the two scenes but also the choice of words. Furthermore, the rate, number, and length of words controls the pace—scene by scene and chapter by chapter.

The Slog

For example, a scene in which the gumshoe is cornered by a dangerous thug and his two wing men:

Heroguy eased himself back into the Herman Miller Aeron chair Magda had given him as a little joke last Secretaries Day.

“True Black,” she had said, referring to the proprietary color of the ergonomic chair, a private dig at his preference for public radio in the afternoon.

There was going to be nothing ergonomic about the chair today. He could tell by the size of the fists balled up in the coat pockets of Mutt and Jeff.

“Nice view,” Badman said. He waved vaguely at the open door, and Mutt strolled over and closed it while his boss stood tensely looking out the window at the ninth floor view of the Miracle Mile. Mutt rejoined Jeff and the two of them settled their hind ends on the dusty surface of Magda’s credenza. Heroguy thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much he was going to need a Scotch when this was all over. Mutt and Jeff looked at Badman for some direction, then seeing that they would not be needed immediately, they began examining the various objects in the room. The unused vintage coat rack kept for effect, the mini-fridge, the sharp edge of the tape dispenser.

“I like it.”

“I suppose you do.”

“What can I do for you?”

“The question is, what am I going to do to you?”

“I dunno. I need a little more information on that. For example, what do I have that you want, and how bad do you want it?”

“I think you know,” he said, and Heroguy did. He knew it all, and he was counting on there being more than a single helping left in the Scotch bottle. Badman turned to his bat boys. “Beat it out of him.”

Ugh! Wit aimed at a public radio audience. The problems pile up from the beginning: Heroguy should be thinking fast and furious about how to defend himself and what he can learn from this encounter. He should be on heightened alert because he is about to get beaten to a pulp. (The scene continues with a brutal assault upon Heroguy that leaves him scarred and humorless. The leisurely comedy is an inappropriate lead up.) The writer may be developing his character by building his radio leanings and relationship with his secretary into the scene, but this is sooooo not the time. The details are mostly random, as is the movement of the chess pieces around the room. The repartee is imitative of noir cinema dialog, but here it just feels like the racehorses have lined up at the gate and started to graze. Good films don’t have bad dialog for the same reason good novels don’t, but with this difference—an actor can sometimes infuse meaningless speech with subtext using face and voice and body language. In novels, dialog and its accompanying cues must be precise in order for the reader to supply the mental imagery that brings a character in a scene to life.

Stepping Up the Narrative Pace

[Move details desccribing  Magda and her reasons for giving Heroguy an ergonomic chair to some earlier, more appropriate character building scene.]

Heroguy eased himself back into his chair.

There was going to be nothing ergonomic about the chair today. He could tell by the size of the fists balled up in the coat pockets of Mutt and Jeff.

“Nice view,” Badman said and settled his hind end on the liquor cabinet, his back to the window. Heroguy thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much he was going to need a Scotch when this was all over.

“I like it.”

“I suppose you do.”

He turned to his bat boys. “Beat it out of him.” Meaning, everything he wanted to know.

All the aimless wandering is gone. Badman’s character is sharpened by making his position the anchor and giving his placement a bit of subtext—he sits with his back to the window, so that his comment on the view refers to his being able to watch the forthcoming beating. He is laconic (though not quite the silent type—he does engage the protagonist) and goes directly to his business. His thugs are shadowy and undefined—mere fists in pockets with no details to distract the reader from the nature of the threat. Heroguy’s wry humor is preserved without the cumbersome brand names and inside jokes.  Badman sits on a liquor cabinet instead of the pointlessly pretentious credenza, a perfectly fine word that will nevertheless make the reader hesitate.

Narrative Pace and Point of View

One further refinement would increase the immediacy of the action and more closely identify the reader with our Heroguy: Make the POV first person.

“Nice view,” Badman said and settled his hind end on my liquor cabinet, his back to the window. I thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much I was going to need a Scotch when this was all over.

This is not a generalization. First person POV is for when you want the reader to be the protagonist.


By extension, the practice of not cluttering up scenes with unimportant movement and detail should be applied to the book as a whole. How important is it that Heroguy’s chair is a Herman Miller and was a gift from Magda? It may be very important (only the author knows), but in weighing whether to build a whole scene around the origins of Heroguy’s chair, the author should consider whether Heroguy’s character and his relationship with Magda have already been pretty well defined—is the scene redundant? And can Magda afford to buy a Herman Miller chair on her salary? Does she like her boss that much? Does she often make exorbitant sacrifices for him? Is the author deliberately targeting a niche audience? Does the brand of chair somehow tie into the resolution of the mystery? Or is this level of detail, however funny or sublimely described or minutely researched, a drag on a story that should simply crack on?

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Narrative Voice: Grammar and Style

Narrative voice is like a car. Grammar is the frame and hoses and moving parts. Style is the result of choices that define the characteristics of an individual car. You can jack up a Wrangler to make it climb rocks. You can add a spoiler for whatever it is you think it does. Custom paint jobs, modified engines, daisy headlamps all tailor the look or performance of the car. Language is flexible and expandable, and some people are fond of saying there are no rules. But hold ’er, Newt. I’m not one of those.

Narrative Voice and the Anti-Existentialism of Grammar

The rules of grammar exist to give structure to language. A writer may bend or modify a rule, but only as long as the remaining structure better serves the narrative voice.

Her head moved just enough to swirl her black page-boy hair and the look she sent back to all those good people and their white-haired guardian of the law was something to be remembered. For one long second she had the judge’s eye and outraged justice flinched before outraged love. (Spillane)

…as he perceived, these shrewd people had quite made up their minds that she was going too far….Winterbourne wondered how she felt about all these cold shoulders turned towards her, and sometimes it annoyed him to suspect that she did not feel at all. … Then at other moments he believed that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced. (James)

As writers, Mickey Spillane and Henry James could not have much more different narrative voices. For Spillane, the shortest distance is a straight line—that’s all a bullet needs to get to the point. He didn’t waste ink over commas unless he needed them.  James was a punctuation opportunist, delivering the complexity of thought in kibbles and bits. Wheels within wheels. Grammatically, however, both of these passages are sound and solidly orthodox. Let’s mess up one line of James:

…as he perceived these shrewd people quite made up their mind about her going too far.

James had it his way. But it could also be edited to:

… he perceived that these shrewd people had quite made up their minds that she was going too far.

…as he perceived, these shrewd people had quite made up their minds about her: She was going too far.

These edits result in a change in narrative voice and style. A really presumptuous edit might inadvertently change the meaning as well:

…he watched as this crowd of shrewd people quite made up its mind that she had gone too far.

Style-Driven Modifications: High-Performance or Just Noisy

If a liberty taken with a grammatical rule results in confusion or misdirection, then it isn’t a matter of style—the writer has simply fouled up his vehicle’s performance.

Ed walked out. Dawn up: fresh light on a mob scene. Patrolmen held back reporters; rubberneckers swarmed. Horns blasted; motorcycles ran interference: meat wagons cut off by the crowd. Ed looked for high brass; newsmen shouting questions stampeded him.

In L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy used a narrative voice pared down to the skeletal. He wanted to reflect the fast, hard, sharp-edged perceptions of his characters (including the narrator), who operate in a violent, harshly lit landscape. These people don’t have time to pad out their thoughts with genial filler.

Ed walked out. Dawn was up: It cast a fresh light on what had become a mob scene. Patrolmen held back reporters;, and rubberneckers swarmed. Horns blasted; as motorcycles ran interference: for the meat wagons, which were being cut off by the crowd. Ed looked for any of the high brass who might be around; but while he was looking, newsmen shouting questions stampeded him.

To convey a rush of impressions, Ellroy simply left out all the words that weren’t necessary to carry the expression of more complete sentences. The essential grammatical structure remained intact despite the elided bits. This is not the same as throwing the rules out and letting the words fall as they may. Ellroy’s prose are crisp and brilliantly clear. The same could not be said if he had written “Running interference with motorcycles, the meat wagons were cut off by the crowd,” which dangles ugly and undignified in its confusion. Or even “Patrolmen held back reporters; rubberneckers swarming. Horns blast; motorcycles run interference: meat wagons cut off by the crowd”—which is just narrative confetti, lacking the immediacy of Ellroy’s construction.

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Manuscript: How to Format

Manuscript Formatting Guidelines

1) Go the the publisher’s or literary agent’s website and follow their guidelines for submission to the letter. They aren’t fooling. If you can’t follow directions, you will be too hard to work with, and they don’t need an author who will crash their schedule or hog resources. This is a very competitive industry. Don’t get rejected before they’ve even read your manuscript.

Where the target’s guidelines do not specifically address formatting:

2) Use 12 pt. Courier or New Times Roman, double spaced, one-inch left and right margins. Do not under any circumstances pretty it up. Just don’t.

3) Provide a title page as a cover to the manuscript: This is not a display page, as it will be in the published book. It is more like a cover sheet with essential information about you and your book. At the top left, put your name (your real one—the one you want on the contract, the one you want the checks made out to), your address, phone number, email address, and the word count. Move down to the middle of the page and center: Title of book (in all caps), subtitle (if there is one, cap each word except the, a, and an and and, but, or and to), and your name as you want it to appear in print.

4) On the first page of the first chapter, set the header to include the page number (do not begin numbering with the title page), your last name (real name, not pen name), and the book’s (not the chapter’s) title. The header should be aligned right.

To create a header in Word, go to Insert, then Page Number, choose Top of Page/ Plain No. 3. This inserts a header that contains only a page number. Move the cursor to the right of the new page number and add the rest of the header. For example, 1 / James / Daisy Miller. If your title page is part of the file, Go to Edit Header and check the Different First Page box. Now the first page header is a blank slate. Go to Page Numbering and choose Format Page Numbers, then set the numbering to begin on 0. Close the header and check to make sure everything is how you want it.

5) Start each chapter on a brand new page, with the chapter number and title (if the chapters are titled) centered and at about a third of the way down the page. Enter an extra line break between the chapter title and the first paragraph.

6) Include The End at the end of the last chapter.

Manuscript Formatting Mistakes

And now, a list of Don’ts:

Don’t double space between periods. If you can’t help it, it’s okay, but most likely the editor will just have to take out the extra space anyway, which is work you do not need to generate for someone who gets paid for going behind you. True, some publishers do include extra space in their page design, but that is done with the layout program, so the extra space is unnecessary in any case.

Don’t add line spaces between paragraphs unless you intend there to be a section break there.

Don’t use the space bar to indent your paragraphs. As an old production editor, believe me, it’s a mess. Use the tab indent, or don’t use an indent at all if you are using Word. Word will put a visual line space (not a carriage return) between paragraphs, which is fine. If you use Word, you also have the option of changing the Quick Style to No Spacing between paragraphs, but you may have to modify the style to add a visual indent. Any of these three options is fine, just never, never use the space bar to align your text.

Don’t underline to indicate italics unless you are using a typewriter. Just italicize the text.

Don’t use boldface. The page designer will decide what gets to be bold. As long as titles, heads, and subheads are clearly what they are in the manuscript, there is no need to use boldface.

You do not need to include the copyright, as that can come off as a dark and sinister hint that you don’t trust the person who is about to see if they want to publish your book. It isn’t a bad idea to copyright your manuscript, but you don’t need to present proof that you have done so.

The Nonfiction Manuscript

If your work includes subheads, illustrations, tables, appendices, or other elements, these must all be included with your submission unless otherwise arranged with the publisher. The publisher will advise you which style guide to follow or provide specific guidelines for you. Words into Type and the Chicago Manual of Style are good general references in preparing elements beyond the range of this post.

Editing the Manuscript

Formatting is not the only consideration in preparing a manuscript for submission. The book needs to be reasonably polished to get the attention of an agent or publisher. Even the best writers have their bloopers and deleted scenes, and an author’s editor can make a book more attractive to a publisher as well as more compelling to a reader—whether it’s making a tech manual more coherent or a knocking the kinks out of a thriller or simply making the publisher’s in-house copyeditor’s job a cake walk.

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Outlining Your Novel: Spreadsheets

Outlining a novel helps to structure the plot and keep the time line straight. There are many methods and forms. The goal is not to freeze-dry the plot before it is even composed, but to prevent the writer from losing sight of the universe he or she is constructing.

Spreadsheets for Outlining

There are a variety of strategies for outlining aside from the I., A., 1., a., method. Spreadsheets are an excellent way of visualizing the structure and flow of a novel. Below is a spreadsheet created by J. K. Rowling, jotted down by hand, wobbly lines and all, on a sideways piece of ruled notebook paper.

J. K. Rowling spreadsheet outlining The Order of the Phoenix

I lifted the image from the Paperblanks blog.

Rowling made columns for chapter number and title, with the corresponding month, a column for plot (overview), and columns for the different plot strands. At a glance, she could see when a character is introduced, at what point critical events take place, and importantly, what else is going on around the same time. She could see how the various subplots were flowing and how they were intersecting with each other and with the main plot. The chart is full of scribbles, arrows, scratches, and insertions. Rowling maintained it as a live document as the writing progressed.

The spreadsheet is a very handy writer’s tool, even for novels with only two or three subplots. Rowling worked with a pen and notebook paper, but a writer working in Word or WordPerfect can use the table feature. Scrivener also has tables. And there is always Excel. The virtue of Excel, aside from the ability to build very wide documents, is that you can get pretty OCD with colors and formulas and subworksheets. Here is a link to How to Get a God’s-Eye View of Your Story in Excel from Jeffrey Scott’s blog post on Animation World Network. His example pertains to scriptwriting but is adaptable to novel writing.


Style Sheet: A Key Writers’ Tool

Keeping a style sheet as you write will save headaches for everybody later on.

Writing is often an impulsive task, and momentum should not be sacrificed to detail if the result is inspirational derailment. At some point, however, you will reread what you’ve written. You will revise. The moment is yours to choose, but you will make choices about this and that. Record those decisions.

A sharp editor will compile a style sheet if you don’t provide one. It will list names of people and places, dates and chronologies, brands of significant objects, preferred spellings, the special treatment of anything.

Here is an example:

My Style Sheet

style sheet

If you look carefully, you will see that certain details raise questions. Sid’s last name doesn’t match the rest of his family. Probably the writer changed the family name but missed Sid because he is only mentioned once. Karrie was 8 when she gave birth to Sid and 13 when she had Henry. This is because in the first draft Karrie was 48, like her husband, but in the second draft the author decided that she needed to be younger, which means Henry should have been made younger too, but the revision slipped between the cracks. The problem is compounded because Sid was moved from younger son to older son to explain the father-son issues between Henry and Carl.

All sorts of details become easier to keep track off with a style sheet. Henry’s Tacoma is frequently mentioned—a kind of defining trait. This is an indication to the editor that the Tacoma deserves heightened attention—its color, model year, dings and scratches, or anything that might come up later. For example, if the dent on the rear quarter was caused by a collision on the driver’s side, it doesn’t make sense for it to be on the left side. If Trixie is only 4 months pregnant, she should not be stumbling off curbs yet; if we meet her 8 months later and she is about to give birth, there is clearly a problem with the chronology. If the writer had to look up the spelling/styling of a brand name, chances are the editor will have to look it up too. If you have to look it up twice, you have your style sheet to refer to.

Story development means errors are almost inevitable. Maintaining a style sheet will help you keep track of all the changes you make. And your editor will love you if you provide a copy of your style sheet with the manuscript. It will save the editor time (and you money).

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Editor: How to Hire One

You have a manuscript. You have a pretty good idea of the kind of help it needs. You are almost afraid to ask how much it will cost, and your worst nightmare is having your book ripped to shreds by a grammar fiend who doesn’t understand the concept of style.

Hiring an editor is like selecting a combo plumber/hairdresser/pediatrician. You want someone who can track down, pinpoint, and fix your leaks and stoppages and make you look your best, while delivering scary and sometimes nasty tasting advice in a pleasant and confidence inspiring manner. A tall order, and you are probably not a human resources specialist. You many not even know where to look. And how do you ensure that the editor you hire will be worth the money you shell out?

Editorial Directories

There is no nationwide guild in the U.S. that certifies editorial competence. I don’t know why. There are, however, a handful of organizations—Craigslist is not among them—that offer resources and directories of professional editors. These include the Editorial Freelancers Association and the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors. There may be local or regional associations in your area as well. MediaBistro’s GalleyCat is another resource. Use the free directories of these organizations to view members’ profiles, or post your project to attract available editors. I am not a fan of sites such as Elance/ODesk that act as middlemen between authors and their editors. The bidding process (and the site’s cut) grinds away editors’ ability to receive fair compensation for the work they do.

No level of editing can be done in the time it takes to read your book. Even a simple read-through for mechanical errors will take considerably longer than a casual pleasure read. There are newbie editors who will cut their teeth on manuscripts for very little money, sometimes for free, and if they are gifted they can be good sources for an inexpensive, no-risk beta read. (The Goodreads Editors and Writers group has many such offers.) An experienced editor, however, will charge a living wage, and a busy editor with a full roster of authors can charge a premium rate.

Sample Edits and References

To establish their qualifications, editors may offer two useful forms of evidence: Sample edits and past achievement. Personally, I think a sample edit is the most useful indicator as it reveals as much about the editor’s predilections, method, attitude, and personality as it does about their abilities. Most editors will not charge for a sample edit, as it is as much in their interest as in yours and is necessary to establish an accurate estimate of cost. Some editors will charge for a sample for the same reason many service professionals will impose a service charge to come to your house and give an estimate—no one should be expected to work for free.

Still other editors will not do sample edits at all, relying on their references and track records to secure new clients. A good editor will have good references, of course. But even an editor with loyal clients may be a bad fit for you. If an editor has been highly recommended to you, get a copy of the author’s book and check out the quality of the edit—unfortunately, a pleasant experience is not necessarily a constructive one. If the edit was good, you might not be able to tell; if the edit was bad, it may be painfully obvious.

Interview Your Editor Candidates

So you’ve rounded up some candidates. You like their emails. You like their credentials. You’ve reviewed their sample edits and gotten quotes on the cost from each. You’ve checked their references. There are two or three you are leaning toward. Let them know you are down to your final selection, and request a phone call. Editors are shy beasts, but a person-to-person conversation can sway you one way or another. Ask about their process and what their standard contract looks like. A good editor will want to get a sense of you and what you are hoping for, what makes you nervous, what you may be hoping to negotiate, and what kind of a hurry you may be in. In return, you may be able to glean valuable advice on what to do after the edit as you move toward publication.

The editor you hire should understand your vision, be generous with advice, refrain from rewriting without express permission, and know how to bring out the strengths in your writing. Your editor must also be frank where weaknesses exist and instructive where improvement is possible. Don’t commit to an editor until you feel confident that your manuscript will be in trustworthy hands.

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