Friday, July 30, 2010

The Horrors of Formatting

Posted by LD Keach on Friday, July 30, 2010

(Or, is that 90,000 words in your pocket, or are you just screwing with my head?)

I am currently formatting a novel for submission. I want to die.

No, seriously—it would be preferable to lay naked, bound and baking under a hot desert sun, with starving vultures pecking incessantly at my midsection in order to reach my moist, protein-rich innards.

Preparing a novel manuscript is Hell. True Hell. Only the most methodical OCD maniac could gain any pleasure from preparing a 356 page manuscript to be sent to a publisher. If you’ve never done it, you may be asking, Whyfore, yon suicidal Horror Writer, does thou formatting drive you such into unblinking madness?

Whyfore, indeed. Why manuscript preparation sucks so much, let me count the ways:

1. Typos. Holy Hand Grenade, the typos. If you’re doing it right, you will pick through every paragraph, every page, to make sure you haven’t missed a single comma, capitalization, or accidentally misused any form of those dreaded grammar bombs Your, Their, and Its. The process can last for weeks, months if you’re really crazy, and you’ll go to sleep every night seeing line breaks dancing behind your eyelids like a bad acid trip.

2.Wordcount. There are two different ways to calculate word count; automatic computer count and the old typesetter’s method. Simple, right? And it would make sense that any book publisher’s guidelines would state whether they want the computer count or the typesetter method, yeah? Even simpler!

No, it is far, far from simple. It is mind-blowingly frustrating.

Take, for example, the novel I’m working on. Automatic computer word count states that it is exactly 68,940 words. (Let’s not even get in to how heart-breaking that is after I spent the better part of a year on the damn thing.) But, the exact same novel put into the correct format for the old typesetter method—one inch margins, 12 point non-proportional font like Courier (not Times New Roman!) with 25 lines and 250 word/spaces average per page—and suddenly, my novel is 89,000. Seriously. 250 times 356 is nearly ninety thousand words. What the malicious crap is this?

It gets better. So, while only the rare guidelines will actually specify in clear English how they’d like you to count your words, it’s safe to assume that electronic publishers will want the computer word count, and print publishers will want the typesetter’s method. (The idea is, of course, that blank spaces on a paper have to be counted the same way letters are, to control costs for print media.) So, you think, no big deal, if they’re print I’ll use a bunch of big words and miraculously engorge my novel upwards of an additional twenty thou…

And, then, the guidelines state: “Prepare your manuscript in Courier, or Times New Roman.”

Or? Or?! That throws off the whole thing! A proportional font like Times New Roman means you have no idea the average of spaces and letters on the page, and you’ll trim a good fifty pages off the manuscript and end up with some freakish sum like 72,000! And then, you’re like, “But I’ll just use the computer word count” but you realize you’re sending it snail mail and how are the slush pile readers supposed to know the computer word count when they’ve got paper in their hands? And then, they’ll probably use the old 250 times how many pages to calculate the word count anyway! And then, your head explodes.

3. Those damned Widows and Orphans. After you’ve mopped the pieces of your brain off the wall, its good to say, “Whatever, I’ll use Courier and just use the old typesetter method. It makes my novel bigger, anyway.” And then Word decides to torture you with the Widows and Orphans control, randomly dropping stray sentences off the bottom of the page so now, you have a manuscript that might be, oh, 23 or 24 lines per page average, which screws the whole thing.

And good luck trying to turn the feature off. Word is possessed by a writer-hating gremlin. But, it will be happy to lick up any brain pieces you left on the couch.

4. Synopses. Oh, Sweet and Salty Jesus. I…I can’t even speak of such things. It’s too horrible.

5. Money. Say, you’re lucky to have a local copy shop that knocks down the printing price to $.06 per page. For a 356 page novel, that’s $21.36. And that’s not even counting the two page synopsis (Aaah!) and the cover letter and the initial first three chapters and the Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope. Altogether, sending out one manuscript to three publishers costs around $90 bucks. If you go to Kinko’s and get gouged by their $.10-per-page, pay-by-the-minute computer printing service, that sum goes up to somewhere around $120.

Who among us has a spare hundred bucks lying around? We’re writers, for crap’s sake.

So, yes. Formatting and preparing a novel manuscript is probably one of the most vicious tortures a writer can subject themselves to. That being said, it’s important that we not fall into the temptation of those sinister “manuscript preparation/submission” services. Sure, there’s plenty of people out there in the money-leeching internet that will suffer all this torture for you and maybe even do a good job at it—for anywhere between $99 to $500, of course.

Five hundred dollars? And they call me mad! If I do it myself for that rate—say, three hours a day for two weeks—then it’s like I’m paying myself $13 bucks an hour! Whoo-hoo! I’ll just think about that while I’m miserably fishing for that $120 bucks in nickels in my couch. And mopping my brains off the walls.


  1. You left me hanging? How does the formatting horror end? Does Courier triumph? Or, does Times New Roman become the hero who saves the world in the final seconds?

    I'm having the same struggles with my novel, and my brain is likewise splattered on the wall (only after having yanked every single hair from my head, of course. Much harder to do the other way around!)

    Started off with TNR, then read about a Courier formatting preference, switched it over, couldn't stand proofreading it in that format, BUT! if I have to change it back, all my chapter breaks will go berserk again, my indents will play musical chairs all over the bloody place, and all the other chaos and mayhem you pointed out with word counts, etc., ad nauseum. The horror!

    So please share what you ultimately decided to do, and if it worked out well in the end, or if you learned any valuable lessons from the experience.

    Love your site, btw! It's a beakon of darkness in an otherwise bright, shiney, happy (shiver) world!

  2. Synopses can suck my metaphoric dong. Hate, hate, HATE writing them. They all come out sounding like some overly enthusiastic child just got done rehashing some lame straight-to-video "film" plot to their friends and forgot half of the really important details.

  3. Calliope - Alas, the story ends on a sad note, I'm afraid. Turns out, Times New Roman has been molesting innocent choir boys for years, and Courier is a crazed, cannibalistic serial killer of which all its victims have yet to be found. And, I just decided to ignore my manuscript and submit it "later." Once my brain regrows.

    But I totally feel your plight; editing in Courier is eye-exploding, and going back through to fix the spacing on all your chapters afterward is miserable, miserable work. And time-consuming. The one thing I can suggest is Arial--Arial is not asked for in a lot of guidelines, but it is non-proportional (or monospaced) and it's a perfectly reasonable font to read a manuscript in. I'd say its fair play if the guidelines state "a font LIKE Courier or Times New Roman."

    It is also an option, better if you've got long chapters, to put each chapter into it's own Word file. That way, format once and you're done. Of course, that can make printing a bear, but I hear there's a way to cntl+A and dump them all in a .pdf in one fail swoop...? I accidentally did it at the copy shop once. It involves Adobe-something. (Anybody more tech savvy than me know how to do this?)

    Other than that, the only option is, I'm afraid; to go through every inch of the 400 page monstrosity we've written and reformat every page. Oh, yes; it's horrible.

    I hate to respond to your wonderful comment (thanks!) with such horrible news but, there it is. Hopefully, though, we'll continue to shine a heavy beam of shadow into your otherwise sunshine-filled existence. ^_^

  4. Jessica,

    Yes, totally! And then, they say in the mirror 'Candyman' and then, he shows up, and then, he doesn't kill them but he cuts the peter off a little boy and then, they're in the scary building, and then they see a painting on the wall and then, there are bees, and then there are more bees...

    Actually, I might just write my next synopsis like that. One humongous paragraph separated only by "and thens."

    Course, I got the love for the Candyman; that movie can make even an overexcited kid sound awesome... Be my victim?)