Manuscript Impressions ~ The Cover Letter

Although we’ve detoured into novel formatting in this series of posts, now we’re going back to talk about short story submissions. In most cases, it’s a good idea to include a cover letter with your submission. Remember, we’re talking cover letter here, not query letter. That’s a whole other post (or series of posts!).

In writing a short story cover letter, keep the KISS principle in mind. Keep it Simple, Submitter!

1. The simplicity should begin with your paper. Don’t use fancy, overblown letterhead, paper with images of books or other writerly symbols, parchment-look paper, or anything other than plain white bond. If you have a simple letterhead, just something with your contact information, like this:

Sherry D. Ramsey
123 Street Street, Sometown, Someplace, Country, Code
Phone, Email, Website

…go ahead and use it, but remember, keep it simple! Otherwise follow standard business letter format.

2. Use a plain, easily-readable font. We’ve discussed fonts previously, and the same rules apply–don’t make the editor struggle to read your letter. The letter is brief, so if you want to move a little outside the box of Times New Roman and Courier, it’s probably okay, but stay simple and professional. Using something like Old English or Jokerman is not going to make you stand out from the crowd–at least not in a desirable way.

3. Know the proper name and address of the editor you’re contacting. These things change, so check for the most recent information you can get.

4. First paragraph: Tell them what you’re sending.

Please find enclosed my story, “This One’s A Winner,” which I would appreciate your considering for publication in Your Awesome Magazine. This piece runs approximately 5000 words.

If you want to call it “my science fiction story” or “my steampunk story” etc., that’s okay, but sometimes it’s better not to pigeonhole your work–let the editor decide what it is. If you’ve done your market homework, you’re sending the right type of story to the right market anyway, so you shouldn’t have to mention it. Right?

4. Second paragraph: Tell them who you are. By this, I mean; mention any previous publications in the same general genre as the story you’re submitting. If you have quite a number of credits, don’t list them all; just the few (three or four) most recent or most prestigious (however you define that). If you have no previous publication credits, don’t sweat it, and don’t try to stick in a bunch of other stuff instead. You may, if you wish, mention fiction for which you’ve won an award, but only if it’s relevant.

5. Third paragraph: Thank them in advance for considering your story, and tell them you look forward to hearing from them. Finish with a standard business closing.

That’s it. Short and simple.

Now, for those of you who think I must have forgotten something, here are some things you do NOT want to include or try to do:

1. Don’t include a summary or synopsis of your story. Your story is going to speak for itself, and that’s what the editor wants to read.

2. Don’t try to be cute, clever, funny, threatening, or anything other than straightforward and professional. This is only a short story you’re trying to sell, and the editor will know if it’s right for the publication upon reading it. Anything else is irrelevant.

3. Don’t tell the editor how many times this story has been rejected, that they will love it, or anything else about it.

4. In short, don’t do anything that isn’t listed above. CAVEAT: Always read the guidelines (have I mentioned this before?) and if they request anything else, then of course include that. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

More questions? Anything I haven’t covered yet? I can’t think of anything just now, but of course I reserve the right to post more on this subject at any time. :)

Manuscript Impressions (Part 4 ~ Novels)

While all of the advice I’ve already given about formatting your manuscript applies to novels as well as short fiction, novels do have their own special issues as well. The Big Caveat (always check and follow the publisher’s guidelines) still applies, perhaps even more so in the case of novels. Most publishers want to see your manuscript presented in a particular way. Why? Sheer volume, for one, and overworked editors, for another. A badly-formatted novel manuscript doesn’t just say “I was written by an amateur,” it also calls into question your ability to follow instructions, and your willingness to play by the rules. While this matters for short stories, novels represent a much bigger time investment for a publisher–and who wants to invest a lot of time to work with someone who can’t follow instructions and appears difficult to deal with right from the start?

So, we start with the same basics: Courier/New or Times New Roman font, size 12, typed/printed on one side only of white paper, double-spaced, one-inch margins all around.

Now on to the novel’s special cases:

  • Title page. Contact information goes in a block at the top left-hand corner, the same as for short stories. Word count goes to the right, or centered at the very bottom of the page. Drop down to the middle of the page, and type your title, centered, in all capital letters. Drop two lines, and type, centered, “A Novel by”, then drop two more lines, and add your name or pen name. Down in the lower right-hand corner, you may add your agent’s contact information, if you have one (in this case, you don’t need your personal contact info at the top of the page).
  • Epigraph. As previously noted, if your novel includes an epigraph, it goes on its own page. Always include the source.
  • Table of Contents. Generally a good idea to include this, if only to let the editor know that you understand that novels have chapters. ;) Drop about a third of the way down the page, and centered, type Table of Contents or Contents. Drop four lines (although this can be less if it lets you get the entire list of chapters on one page). Include any prologue, preface, or foreward, but do not list page numbers for these elements. The chapter headings should be left-aligned, and the page numbers right-aligned. The page should be double-spaced. The ToC page itself is not numbered. List chapters like this:

    Chapter 1: The Beginning                                   1

  • Front Matter Order. Depending on what front matter you have in your novel, it goes in the following order: Title page, Contents, Dedication, Epigraph, Foreward, Preface, Acknowledgements. The only real requirements are the title page and contents.
  • Header. Your last name/Novel title/page number, right-aligned.
  • Page Numbering. Numbering starts with “1” on the first page of the actual body of the novel–that is, the first page of the Prologue (if there is one) or Chapter One. Front matter elements (cover page, epigraph, dedication, table of contents, etc.) are not numbered.
  • First page of Chapter. Always begin a chapter on a new page. Drop about one-third of the way down the page. Centered, type the chapter number (Chapter One or Chapter 1). On the line below, center and type the title of the chapter if there is one. Drop two lines and begin the body of the text.

That’s all I can think of specific to novels, but please send questions if I’ve overlooked anything. Next post–the dreaded cover letter!

Manuscript Impressions Q&A

So far these posts have spawned three good questions (thanks, Chuck!) so I thought instead of responding in the comments I’d add a couple of Q&A posts. The questions are:

#1. Short stories – should your story begin right after your byline?

#2. How do you handle chapters with novels? Chapters with titles?

#3. How do you handle opening quotes in chapters? Such as the quotes from the Galactic Encyclopedia in Asimov’s Foundation Series, or quotes from the Orange Catholic Bible in Frank Herbert’s Dune? Is there a special name for these?

I’m going to answer #1 & #3 here now, and #2 tomorrow in another separate post, since novels are a different beast and have a few rules of their own.

A1. For short stories, yes, start the story immediately following one or two blank lines after the byline. Thus, your first page has, in this order, your contact information, approximate word count, title, byline, and beginning of the story.

A3. Opening quotes in chapters, at the beginning of a short story, or at the beginning of a novel are called epigraphs. I’ll break down the three ways to treat them:

  • At the beginning of a short story. Below your byline (as we’ve discussed earlier) leave a blank line or two and then type the epigraph, centered and indented, and double-spaced. You may or may not wish to set it in italics. On the next line after the quote ends, add the source, preceded by an em-dash and set flush right with the longest line of the quote. This sounds complicated, so I’ll demonstrate:

    When she I loved looked every day/Fresh as a rose in June,
    I to her cottage bent my way,/Beneath an evening-moon.
    –William Wordsworth, Strange Fits of Passion I Have Known

  • At the beginning of a chapter. On the page where a new chapter is to begin, drop down about eighteen lines. Type the epigraph as detailed above. Then drop 4-6 lines and center the chapter heading (“Chapter Ten”). Drop down two more lines and center the chapter title, if there is one.
  • At the beginning of a novel, the epigraph goes on its own page, set up as for the beginning of a chapter.

Come back tomorrow for all the details on novel manuscript layout!

Manuscript Impressions (Part 3)


That’s the ubiquitous nod to preferred layout that many market guidelines offer. It’s good advice, sure, and clear as far as it goes. But is that really all there is to your manuscript layout? What about indentation? What about white space? What about headers? Footers? Title slugs? Page numbering? And should you or should you not type “The End” at the end?

If you’ve been reading along in this series, you already know The Big Caveat, about always checking the market guidelines and doing whatever they say, regardless of what I’m telling you here. Do that, and if you still have unanswered questions, fall back on what I’m telling you here.

So we already have the basics, from the first line above. Your manuscript should be:

  1. Typed. You can do this on a typewriter, if you still have one with a good ribbon. You can print it on any sort of printer that yields clean, readable type. If you’re printing on a color printer, resist the urge to use any color other than black.
  2. Double-spaced. This means that the line spacing is double. Not one and a half, not some custom setting that you think looks better. Double. It’s easy. Do it.
  3. On one side. Do not print on both sides of the paper. It may be ecologically good practice to print on both sides, but in this case the editor does not care (unless they say so in the guidelines. But I don’t have to keep telling you that, do I?)
  4. White paper. Not cream. Not ivory. Not a rainbow-pack with different colors for each chapter. Regular weight printer paper will do just fine.
  5. One-inch margins. Again, don’t be tempted to use smaller margins to save paper, or bigger margins to make your story look longer.

All right, those are the basics. Now what about those other details?

  1. First page. Top left corner, type your name, address, email and phone. You may wish to include an approximate word count. This can go on the right, opposite the last line of your contact information. Space down to about the middle of the page. Type the title of your story, centered. Under that, centered, type your name or byline.
  2. Indentation. Indent the first line of each paragraph either 3 or 5 spaces, or set a tab or automatic indentation to one of those settings.
  3. White space. Do not include white space (an extra blank line) between paragraphs. The indentation does the job of setting your paragraphs apart.
  4. Scene breaks. You may use white space to denote a scene change, but it’s a better idea to also use a centered # or *** to make sure the break is clear. Sometimes if the break falls at the end/beginning of a page it can get lost.
  5. Justification. Left-justify your document, and leave the right edge ragged. Do not turn on full justification (having both edges of the paragraphs aligned with the margins).
  6. Headers and Footers. Turn on a proper header/footer in your word processor–don’t try to create the look of one simply by spacing or manipulating the text of the body, because it will invariably not display properly and you’ll end up with page numbers and header information interspersed in your text. Preferably in the header, right-aligned, insert this information: your last name/title of your story/page number. If your story title is long, use a reasonable abbreviation. In case your story somehow gets mixed in with one or more others on the editor’s desk, you want to make it easy to put the pieces back together.
  7. The End. It’s good practice to include some kind of indicator that your story is over, especially in case it falls at the end of a page and the editor could be left wondering if there’s a page missing. Center and type “The End” or “End”.

If you’re reading this and still wondering why all this is important, go back and re-read the first post in this series. Even if this is not the editor’s favorite layout, even if you somehow missed his or her special guideline desires, following this “standard” setup at least says that you are conducting yourself on a professional level.

If you still have questions about the layout portion of the program, if I’ve missed anything you’re wondering about, just ask in the comments. I’ll be sure to answer as best I can.

Next up: the cover letter. Whole books have been written about cover letters, but I’m going to cover the basics in one post. Hey, you have the rest of your writing career to work on the refinements.

Manuscript Impressions (Part 2)

Today we’re going to talk about setting your manuscript in the proper font.

Before I even go any further, I’m going to remind you about The Big Caveat from yesterday’s post. Always check the guidelines for the market you’re submitting to, and follow them to the letter. Market guidelines will always trump anything I tell you here or anyone else tells you elsewhere.

Always. Check. The. Guidelines. Are we clear?

Okay, I’m going to acknowledge up front that at least half of everyone I ask (at least those of the writerly persuasion) seems to hate Courier/Courier New. They say it’s ugly, old-fashioned, outdated, and should have gone away when typewriters did.

Well, there are still some typewriters around, and so is Courier. The reason is simple: it’s an easily-readable font. Editors faced with the task of reading piles of slush every day like easily-readable fonts. (No, Courier is not the only readable font, before anyone starts sending me indignant messages about how wonderful their favorite font is. And there are editors as well who don’t like Courier, and prefer–and ask for–something like Times New Roman, for instance. But think about it–why are some fonts preferred, in general, above all others? Because above all else, they’re easy to read.)

The most easily-readable, preferred fonts for print, the ones that turn up most often in guidelines, are Courier/New and Times New Roman. This is an interesting dichotomy, since Courier is a monospaced font (each letter takes up the same space as every other letter) and Times New Roman is a proportional font (letter widths are variable) which makes them very different in appearance. It’s likely that these preferences are due at least in part to familiarity–both of these fonts have been around a long time and in widespread use. If guidelines do not state a preference, use one of these two fonts, and the safest bet in most cases is Courier.

You may have read or heard discussion that the most easily-readable fonts for print are not necessarily the same as those for on-screen reading. The general consensus seems to be that sans-serif fonts (like the one you’re reading now) are best for on-screen, and that the most preferred of these are Arial, Trebuchet, and Verdana. While this may be true, don’t get excited and think that because a market accepts electronic submissions, you should move to one of these on-screen fonts for your manuscript. Unless the guidelines tell you that it’s acceptable or preferred, don’t do it.

If you seriously hate Courier and Times New Roman, to the point that looking at them saps your inspiration and creativity and renders you unable to write a single word, I have a suggestion for you. Use whatever font you want for the composition of your manuscript. Really, go ahead. Make yourself happy. Write in Comic Sans or Brush Script or Old English if you want. No-one is going to see it but you.

Then, when you are ready to start editing your manuscript, select the entire text and change it to Courier or TNR. The advantage of this is that the change in font will make it easier for you to spot typos and other errors as you go through the editing process. It no longer looks like the same thing you’ve read several times by now, so your eyes are not as likely to skim over what you think is on the page as opposed to what is actually there. This also gives you time to get used to the look of your story in the format in which you’re going to send it out.

And again–why is it so important to follow guidelines and give editors what they are expecting to see in your format? Because you want your manuscript to make a good first impression. You want it to say that regardless of what the editor thinks of the particular story they’re about to read, it was written by someone who is taking this whole writing thing seriously, and is also taking the time to do things right.

So, a brief recap. Guidelines. Courier. Times New Roman. Unless otherwise specified. Give the editors what they want.

I think tomorrow we’ll be ready to move on to ~ layout. More fun and games then!

Manuscript Impressions (Part 1)

There are countless articles, blog posts, templates, essays, and books out there detailing how to properly format your manuscript for submission. So why am I writing a series of blog posts about it?

Because there are still new and aspiring writers who haven’t yet mastered the basics, and it’s so important that it will be worth it if I reach just one of them. (Also, I’m procrastinating on mulling over the story I’m writing.) Because I’ve been on both sides of the submissions process, and I know what that has taught me. Because why would you spend countless hours perfecting your story and then throw it all away with a badly presented manuscript?

Some of those new and aspiring writers will already be asking, “Why is it so dang important, anyway? Who cares what my story looks like? It’s the story that counts!”

Agreed. But you know what? If your story isn’t presented properly, there’s a very good chance that it a) won’t be taken seriously or b) won’t be read at all.

I can already hear the cries of “But that’s not fair!” Maybe not, but that’s the way it is, and if you’re going to flourish in the publishing world, you are going to have to play by at least some of the rules. Remember the potency of first impressions. We are swayed by first impressions all the time in everyday life, from people we encounter, to products we consider buying, to websites we decide to visit for more than five seconds. The same thing applies to your manuscript, when the editor slides it out of the envelope or opens the file on the screen. First impression? It’s likely going to be either “I was written by a professional” or “I was written by an amateur.” It’s sad but true. And that first impression will go with the editor as he or she begins to read, and it can and will color what they think of your story.

Accept that, and then get on with learning how to deal with it. That means, learn how to properly present your manuscript, and do it.

The Big Caveat
Before I go any further here, I’m going to give you the Big Caveat. Always check the guidelines for the particular publication/editor you’re sending your story to. Always. Check. The. Guidelines. Some editors want you to format your manuscript in a particular way for them. Do it. If they want “standard manuscript format,” that’s what we’re going to talk about here. If they want anything else, be it specific fonts, sizes, line spacings, margins, headers, footers, whatever ~ give it to them. It shows that you’re serious, you’ve taken the time to see what they want, you’re professional, and you want to make a good first impression.

Are you ready? Next post, we’re going to talk about fonts. Yes, a whole post about fonts. Come back. It’ll be worth it.

Eyes on Copy

When I was in high school, I took Typing 101 (now my daughter is in high school, taking Keyboarding). We learned to type on huge metal Underwood monstrosities, with keys that actually needed force to depress, rattling carriage returns, and clanging warning bells as one approached the margin. Our typing teacher had the disconcerting habit of creeping up behind you during timed exercises and screaming “eyes on copy!” in your ear if your eyes happened to stray from what you were typing to the keys or your work. This invariably resulted in fingers being jolted off the home row and at least one line of sbdp;iyr honnrtodj nrgptr upi trs;oxrf ejsy jsf js[[rmrf/

However, this morning I am considering another meaning of “eyes on copy,” after listening to the latest episode of Writing Excuses during my morning walk. The topic was “Strategies for Getting Published” or in other words, getting eyes on your copy. Editors’ eyes, readers’ eyes–really, anyone’s eyes.

It’s a great episode, covering the various uses of social media, approaches NOT to take with submissions, and both caveats against and ideas for trying something new. (If you’re an aspiring or struggling writer, especially in the speculative genres, you really should be listening to this podcast. It’s like a master class in genre writing.)

One comment, however, particularly resonated with me, stuck as I am right now (as I always seem to be) in the rut of trying to figure out how to balance writing, writing-related activities, and ROML*. Brandon and Howard, sort of together, said the most important thing is still to have great writing, and lots of it.

Great writing. And lots of it.

That seems to be where my planning always falls down. I think I do have good–sometimes even really good–writing. But I’m not doing enough of it. I am always struggling to keep writing at the top of the priority list for myself and for those around me. Writing at home–really, doing any job from home–is a very difficult job for other people to take seriously because they think your time is flexible and unstructured. And on my part, it’s very easy to get caught up in many things that are writing-related and relevant to my writing career–but not actually writing. Another meaning of “eyes on copy”–keep focused on what you’re doing.

Great writing. Lots of it. Eyes on copy.

I’d better get to it.

*the Rest of My Life
**Thanks to mconnors for the great typewriter photo

It’s Official

I’m pleased to note that I am the new Webmaster for SF Canada, the national association for Canadian speculative fiction professionals. We have a newly-built website that is in the process of becoming our main home on the web. Right now I’m busy trying to find my way around it and figure out what needs to be done, but it’s an exciting job. I have some plans for new things I would like to bring online at the site once all the basics are covered.

The new site, if you’d like to visit, is at although it’s still in the growing stages of getting content added.

Phase Two Edits–Complete!

Photobucket Today I made it through the last of my editing notes, added the last bits that I knew were needed, and called it a wrap on phase two of the novel edit. I’ve added about 7000 new words during this phase, which was good.

One more phase to go–the one I call “making it pretty.” This means I’ll be line-editing the whole thing and looking for places to add description and sensory images, deepening characterization, and just basically polishing the entire thing until it (hopefully) shines.

I’m getting tired of looking at it, but I find this upcoming phase of revision is usually very satisfying, and not as much hard work as the last phase. It’s a strange mix of right-and-left brain work that I generally find invigorating. I have the school book fair and a school visit coming up in the next week and a half, though, so I don’t expect to have a lot of time to work through it until those things are over. I’m going to posit another two to three weeks to get to the end, which is not bad. I’ll be quite pleased if I can make that deadline.

Revision Paranoia

Photobucket I’ve come to the point in this revision where I’m hearing voices in my head.

They’re saying things like, “This novel stinks,” and “It’s brilliant but not marketable,” and “It has more holes than last year’s socks,” and “This is a big waste of time you could be spending on other things.” In other words, it’s getting to be hard work, and my brain doesn’t want to do it any more.

Which is not to say that any or all of these things are not true. They could be. But I’ve come to the conclusion, through my own writing and by reading what other writers say about their experience, that I am not the best judge of that at this time. My job right now is to finish the thing, and show it to someone else–probably several someone elses–before I even start to think about it solely on its merits.

And before I can do that, I have to finish it. So off I go.