Proper novella format

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A reader writes to ask:

What does the format look like for a novella? What's the first page look like? And, what do you do with chapters?

The novella is a curious case. Not quite short enough to be called a short story, not quite long enough to be called a novel, the novella exists in a definitional twilight zone. SFWA defines a novella as a work of fiction of between 17,500 and 40,000 words, but to most of the world it's just an awkward in-between sort of thing. It can be a very satisfying fictional length—just ask Henry James—but it can be a hard thing to sell. The market for novellas, sadly, is not a big one these days.

In my estimation, the format you use for a novella would depend on where you're submitting it, and for what purpose. If you're sending it to a magazine or anthology, format it the same as you would a short story. If you're sending it to a book publisher for consideration as a standalone volume, you should format it like you would a novel, with a separate title page.

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Word count vs. page count

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A reader writes to ask:

I've been speaking with an agent who has expressed keen interest in my sci-fi/humor novel, and what she's telling me is that while she really digs it, the manuscript is simply coming in too long for most publishers to take a look at. Unbeknowst to me (rookie mistake), I need to reformat the mansucript using Courier 12 point, which is blowing my page count sky-high (I wrote in Times Roman).

The agent is also telling me that I need to get it down below 480 pages Courier for publishers to be willing to look at it. My mansucript is 120,000 words and change, but is coming in at 730 pages Courier 12 point. Any thoughts about anything I might be doing wrong, if anything?

Is she on point? Is the page count more significant than the word count?

I hate being so close and yet feeling like I might be so far.

I'd appreciate any feedback you can offer me.

A lot of points to address here in this message! As far as your mechanical problem goes, without looking at your manuscript I can't be sure what you're doing wrong in your word-processing program that's making your page count so high. Check your margins carefully to be sure they are 1 inch all the way around. Check to be sure you're double-spacing your text and not triple-spacing it, because that alone would explain why your page count is about 50% higher than it should be.

480 pages in Courier 12 is going to yield a manuscript of between 120,000 and 140,000 words, depending on your margins, so your novel should be fine as-is, without any cuts, if you can just get your formatting problems ironed out.

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A reader writes to ask:

I had a quick question for you regarding header formatting for novel manuscripts.

I'm trying to customize the autotext feature for headers to follow the example you gave:

Author / Book Title / Page #

I had some luck with the author and book title, but can't seem to customize auto-formatting of the page #. Do you know how to do this in MS Word?

If you're using MS Word 2007 or a more recent version—the version with the tool ribbons at the top instead of pull-down menus—then go to the Insert ribbon. In the group of tools labeled Header & Footer, there is a Page Number option. Click Page Number → Current Position → Plain Number and Word will insert a code that prints the current page number.

In older versions of Word, the process will be similar. Just find the Header & Footer item in the pull-down menus and go from there.

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A reader writes to ask:

Do you have any direction to point me in formatting elaborate typesets in manuscript. i.e. I have a sex scene written in the shape of a penis. Any help?

An interesting question, and one that must have been encountered before by editors of books like Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. My gut says you could go one of two ways, depending on how ambitious you are. The first way would be simply to indent the priapic passage as a block of text, draw a line next to it down the left side, and write in the margin a note like "set in penis shape." You could even draw the desired shape in the margin in miniature, if you're not afraid of sending the wrong message to the typesetter.

The second, more ambitious way would be to center the text and try to fashion the penis-shape yourself, painstakingly, with hard (no pun) returns and extra spaces to make everything line up right on both side. (Maybe you'd want to practice that first on a bathroom wall.)

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A reader writes to ask:

I've been writing a novel over the past year, and with the help on your site as well as a few other sites, I've been converting it into manuscript format. However, after having copied over the first two chapters, I've compared the word count from MS Word with the publisher method of word counting, I'm getting a difference of a thousand words (10.2k to 9.2k), which'll become a 10,000-word difference at Chapter 20. Is there usually that kind of overestimation, or is there a problem with my formatting? I've got a max of 60 characters per line and 25 lines per page, and I put chapter titles 2 inches into the page. Is there anything I should change to make the estimated word count more accurate, or is changing the line or page length going to set off any red flags with the publishers? I would appreciate your input.

That kind of overestimation is fine and expected. A publisher's word count is not at all identical to the one Word will give you, and is more useful to the publisher in determining how many pages that eventual published book (or story or article) will run.

Just offer your best estimate of a word count. No publisher is going to penalize you for that. In fact, since book publishers don't pay by the word, it's probably the last thing they're going to pay a lot of attention to. In addition, in the event that your novel is accepted for publication, you'll likely be submitting a Word document to your editor at some point. If an exact word count is ever needed, he or she can get that information directly from your document.

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A reader writes to ask:

If you don't mind, I have a very quick question for you. You say that italics should never be used, and italicized passages should be underlined instead. But what if a story has long passages that are meant to be italicized, as a formatting choice? In my case, it's meant to delineate the story from the narrator's asides, and I'm afraid it would look incredibly annoying to have a full page of underlined text. Are there exceptions to the no-italics rule, or should I stay with underlining, regardless of length?

Most people balk at the conventions of manuscript formatting because the results aren't pleasing to an eye used to reading typeset pages in books. A professional editor, however, is probably not going to be annoyed to see a full page underlined in a manuscript. I've done that myself with story submissions. (The editor who originally bought that story did ask me if I was sure I wanted to italicize those passages, thinking it wasn't really necessary, but he did not tell me the manuscript itself looked bad that way.)

If you really feel displeased with the way a page of underlining looks, then do it the way writers using typewriters did, where underlining long passages was not practical. Print the manuscript, then draw a long straight line down the left margin of each passage you want italicized. Write "ital" in the margin next to each passage. If the passage runs to the next page, put "ital" in the margin again on the next page. It's a bit unwieldy, but it's much better than using italics in your manuscript.

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The format to come

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Welcome to FLOG, my new blog on all aspects of manuscript formatting.

For well over a decade my formatting guide "Proper Manuscript Format" has been available online, with the result that I've fielded hundreds of questions on the subject from writers around the English-speaking world. For years now I've wanted to share those letters and my responses to them online, on the theory that for every question I receive there are probably ten times as many writers with the same question who don't email and would find the discussion helpful.

I don't consider myself more than a de facto expert on manuscript formatting. I do, however, believe that after mastering a few basic principles, most of the rest is common sense. For instance, I recommend (as I was taught) using a Courier font for your submissions. But if the guidelines for a particular market state that they prefer to see submissions in Times Roman, it's only common sense to do as they say when sending something there.

It's clear that the further we advance into the Digital Age, the more writing, editing and publishing practices are changing. Flexibility and adaptability are important. Some posts here will address that fact. Others will offer thoughts on more mechanical aspects of formatting and manuscript submission. But the bulk of my posts will no doubt come as answers to your emails, both newly posed and mined from my archives. (To submit questions, please send email to format at shunn dot net.)

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Looking for Bill's original properly formatted article on proper manuscript format? Click here.
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FLOG is Hugo- and Nebula-nominated author William Shunn's blog on manuscript formatting and preparation for fiction writers. It features formatting questions from real readers and writers like you. Submit your questions to format at shunn dot net. Identitying information will remain private. We regret that we can't always respond individually to submissions, and that we can't answer every question we receive.
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