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Correctly Formatting Your Novel Manuscript

Today’s question is a tactical question on formatting a scene in a manuscript.

Morgan posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

How do you show a break between scenes in a single chapter? I’ve seen some books where they put something (like a symbol or stars or dots) and I’ve seen others where there is a lengthy space before the new scene begins. Does it matter?

Randy sez: This is a good question and opens up several other questions on formatting scenes.

To answer Morgan, you show a scene break in any of those ways. I generally put one line with three asterisks centered as my scene break within a chapter. You can just add an extra blank line. The one thing you don’t want to do is to do nothing. You need to give the reader some visual cue that the scene has changed.

Since we’re talking about scene formatting, let’s address the various other issues that can come up. Remember that your publisher has a typesetter to take your manuscript (typically in Word .doc format) and convert it to the final typeset form. So you don’t need to stress much about making camera-ready copy. You just need to present it to a publisher in a format they’re expecting.

Here is how I format my manuscripts for submission to publishers. Much of this I learned from Sol Stein years ago in a small group that he taught in Laguna Beach. Sol edited about 1600 manuscripts, plus he authored a number of books. His advice is timeless. The main thing is to make the manuscript readable for the editor and to put as few speed-bumps on each page as possible.

  • One inch margins on all sides.
  • All text is 12-point Times New Roman (or Times Roman). Don’t use Helvetica or any other font without a serif. Don’t use Courier (that went out with typewriters).
  • In the header for each page, put your last name, right-justified. (Not your title. If the editor hates the title, she’ll be reminded of how dumb it is every time she turns the page.) All word processors let you define a header that will be on every page.
  • In the footer for each page, put the page number, centered. Just put the number, without prefacing it with the word “page”. Editors are pretty smart and they know it’s a page number.
  • Double-space all text in the main body of your manuscript.
  • Begin the book with a title page that has the title in 36 point type, centered on the page. Beneath it, in a normal font size, type your name.
  • Begin each chapter on a new page. Space down about four lines (each of which is double-spaced, so it’s really eight lines). Type the word “Chapter” and the number of the chapter. This should be centered on the line. You should make this a larger than normal font size. I typically use 18 points.
  • On the next line, include any dateline or scene information for the scene, if you need it. Most novels don’t, but sometimes it makes sense to have a date or even a time-stamp for the scene. I always type the name of the point-of-view character on this line, centered and underlined. Most authors don’t do this, so this is strictly optional. I do it because it reminds me who I am for this scene, and I think it helps the reader. I first saw this in Irwin Shaw’s book RICH MAN, POOR MAN. If it’s good enough for Shaw, it’s good enough for me. But some editors may ask you to remove it. When my editors have asked if it was really necessary, I’ve always told them “All my other editors have let me do it.” Peer pressure works great here. For some books, you may include even more information, such as a location. In Audrey Niffenegger’s book THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, she always gave the date and the ages of the characters. She gave the date because she told the story out of order in a beautifully non-linear way. She gave the ages because Henry was always time-traveling around. In my novel, THE FIFTH MAN, which I coauthored with John Olson, we gave either Mars local time or earth local time. These get out of sync by 39 minutes per earth day, so it was necessary to keep track.
  • Indent each paragraph. Your typesetter will later change this so the first paragraph of a chapter is not indented. Let him do that. You indent every paragraph. The correct way to do this is to use a style in your word processor that automatically indents each paragraph half an inch. The wrong way to do this is to manually insert a tab or several spaces at the beginning of each paragraph. These will screw up your typesetter’s life, so save him some grief and do it right to begin with.
  • For scene breaks within a chapter, insert one line with three asterisks centered.
  • Don’t use underlines or boldface anywhere in the text of your story.
  • Use italics sparingly.
  • Don’t use all capitals in your text unless your name is J.K. Rowling and you are selling zillions of copies.
  • You are allowed one semicolon in your entire working life as a novelist. You can use more than that if you insist, but quite honestly you have a disease that should be treated and I refuse to be an enabler for you.

I’m pretty sure those are all the main formatting guidelines that I use. If I missed one, my Loyal Blog Readers will post a comment to ask me about it and then I’ll edit the above to be more complete.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.