Laying It Out


by Zoë Sharp

I’m fussy when it comes to presentation. For someone with precious little fashion sense, I do take a lot of care about the way my work looks when it goes out, and I always have. Maybe that makes me vain, in a way. I’m not sure.

I could try to say that always preferring to print out an address label rather than hand-write the package is just to save the postal system misdirecting it, but the truth is, I just think it looks neater.

I bought my first word processor – the almighty Amstrad – back in the mid-1980s. It allowed me to present a piece of work that was spell-checked and laid out properly. Even a dot-matrix printer – set on high quality – could produce decent looking type. And although this was not the model I owned, you’ll notice something about this PC – no mouse. Everything was keyboard-driven. I loved it, and hung on to my old version of LocoScript as a word processing package for years after it had gone out of date. The thesaurus program knocks later ones into the proverbial cocked hat. Ah, nostalgia – it isn’t what it used to be. <sigh>

And now, when I send out sets of digital images on DVD-R, they have a fully printed label, the pictures are sorted into order, renamed to relate to the subject matter, and numbered. I even rename the disk itself, so as soon as it goes into the drive, you know what it is.

Sounds a bit daft, doesn’t it?

Not if you keep getting the work.

I’m not saying that laying your work out correctly, numbering the pages right from the start of the typescript, and spell-checking the document, will get you a deal. Let’s be honest about this. It won’t. There’s an old motor-racing saying that goes, “You can tidy up speed, but you can’t speed up tidiness.” And so it is with writing. If the style and the voice is there, it’s going to shine through regardless. But why make things difficult for yourself?

People may think that they make considered decisions, but the truth is that most job interviews are passed or failed within the first three minutes. Sending out a piece of work for consideration is like an interview. And quite beyond the quality of the writing, sending stuff out that needs rearranging before it can be printed or read, is asking for a negative response.

I have recently been reading work from various unpublished writers, who wanted my opinion (for what it’s worth!) and found the following difficulties:

Block paragraphs instead of indented.
OK, not a great problem, until you try and print out the pages to read. Then you find out just how many blank spaces there are, and how many extra pages of print it takes up. I’m not made of ink, and think of the poor trees!

Double line spacing instead of one-and-a-half.
Again, not a big problem, and one that’s a lot easier to block-alter. I have always presented typescripts in 1½ spacing rather than double, purely because it looks better on the page – more like a book and less like a manuscript – but still allows room for comments between the lines, if necessary. And again, it saves on trees. I quickly re-spaced the t/s of FOURTH DAY and discovered it went from 329 A4 pages to 427. That’s a lot of extra paper.

Font size.
This is starting to make me sound really picky, but I’ve had stuff sent to me in everything from eight-point, which makes you go cross-eyed halfway down the first page, to fourteen-point, which feels like the writer is shouting at you. I use a 23in widescreen computer monitor, and this makes me feel like I’m going deaf. Please, twelve-point is fine.

Page numbering.
Either you get no page numbers at all, and have to add them in, or occasionally I’ve had each chapter sent as a separate file, with the numbering returning to 1 for each one. And no identification of the author or title in the file title, or occasionally nothing in the header or footer in the document itself. Mind you, I think that’s better than putting a © copyright symbol in with their name, like they expect I’m going to steal their work. If you’re that worried, don’t send it to me.

Be consistent.
Most of the time, it really doesn’t matter if you spell something as one word, two words, or hyphenated. But not all three. In the same paragraph. UK publishers use single speech quotes, and US publishers use double. Either is fine, but not a mix from one page to the next.

These may seem like basic, basic points, and indeed they are. Most are easily fixed with a few keystrokes, but why make the person you are sending your work out to, have to do this before they can read your actual words? Remember those three minutes? How many of them have you wasted in making your good impression?

And then there’s attitude. I love to try to help and encourage writers to achieve their dream of publication. It gives me a real thrill to pay it forwards, it really does. But you can take the pish.

I’ve had approach email from people that actually start, “I’ve never read any of your work, but…” and end up attaching their opening chapter for my opinion. I have a website I’ve taken a lot of time and trouble over. It has extracts – both audio and print – and opening chapters of all my books, plus openers of short stories. Don’t you think it might be worth five minutes having a click round? OK, I don’t expect you to go out and buy a book on the off-chance, but at least go and check one out of the library.

I’ve also had approaches that ask for an opinion, and then admit that they’ve already sent the work out on submission anyway. In which case, what does my opinion matter? Why are you asking if it’s too late to do anything about it anyway?

I’m happy to help, really I am. Most writers are. But you can really help yourself if you do a little research first. At least pick a writer whose work you know and admire, so you know in advance that their comments on your style are relevant. We all ask dumb questions occasionally. We all make mistakes, we’re all human, but give yourself a chance to give us a chance to help.

This week’s Word of the Week is subsultive, meaning moving by sudden leaps or starts; twitching, and also subsultus, meaning an abnormal convulsive or twitching movement, usually of the muscles, from the Latin subsultare, to jump, hop, from sub up, and salire to leap.

I’m in and out of the office in fits and starts today, but I’ll get back to everyone as soon as I can!


Breaking News!


Busted Flush have just announced all four covers for the backlist of the early Charlie Fox books, coming out in the States over the next twelve months, and I think they look fabulous! I’ve been grinning ever since I got them ;-]







54 thoughts on “Laying It Out

  1. JD Rhoades

    I’ve had approach email from people that actually start, "I’ve never read any of your work, but…"

    My smart-ass response would be, "and now I’ve never read any of yours, either."

    But then, I’m evil.

    Good words of wisdom, Z.

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    I like your word of the day today. It’s a good one to chew on and then slip it into conversations oh so casually. šŸ™‚ Have a lovely Thursday.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Great post, Z. It can’t be said often enough, and it’s so wild that there are so many people who don’t get it.

    "I’ve never actually read any of your work, but.."

    This has got to be the most mystifying thing about these – they think – aspiring writers. Every single time I get one of those e mails that start like that I have physically stop myself from writing back, "How FUCKING STUPID are you?" Not just that they HAVEN’T done the homework but that they would actually admit it up front.

    These are people who have so little empathy or awareness that it’s impossible to believe they could write one convincing word.

  4. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi JD

    LOL – I love your response. I just can’t bring myself to put anything in writing that might come back to haunt me if read out in court several months later. I quite often write very vitriolic emails that I put in Send Later and then never do. It’s a bit like when people are rude to you in their questions at panel events. You may want to tell somebody to go do unpleasant things to themselves, but you smile and say, "Thank you, that’s a very interesting point… Next?"

  5. Zoƫ Sharp

    Oh, Alex, don’t hold anything back!

    I sometimes wonder if this attitude is not being helped by the internet, which has so many free services and sources of information out there, that people tend to take it for granted that you’ll read and comment immediately.

    I even had one guy who sent me a partial on Thursday, with a helpful cover email that said he would be away over the weekend and therefore couldn’t access his email, but could I text him my opinion …?

    And your comment: "These are people who have so little empathy or awareness that it’s impossible to believe they could write one convincing word."

    I think you may be onto something there … ;-]

  6. Dana King

    As a pre-published author myself, the chutzpah of some of my peers amazes and disappoints me. The generosity of crime writers is well-documented; show a little patience, class, and a willingness to pay it forward yourself and you’ll not lack for people willing to help you.

    I’ve been an active blogger, commenter, and reviewer for several years now, and have developed a little network of respected professionals I can turn to for advice. I’ve even had a couple of well-regarded writers offer to read manuscripts for me; I didn’t have to ask. (Of course I took them up on it.) Pay your dues, do your homework, and, maybe most important, show you’re as willing to help others as you’re willing to be helped yourself.

    And don’t pout. Writers have a lot going on in addition to writing: kids, spouses, other jobs, sickness, injuries, all the things everyone has to worry about. Before expecting empathy and compassion for your situation, show a little yourself.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    ""You can tidy up speed, but you can’t speed up tidiness." And so it is with writing. If the style and the voice is there, it’s going to shine through regardless." –

    I once worked with a film editor who said, "I can only do so much. You can shine and shine and shine a piece of shit, but in the end all you’ve got is a shiny piece of shit."

    I have a question – does it drive you nuts when people don’t put the two dots over the "e" in your name? I don’t even know where to find the two-dot-over-the-e button on my computer.

  8. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Dana

    Hey, any ‘Rati regulars are always welcome. You know where to find my email ;-]

    I loved the comment about "don’t pout". There is a certain amount of artistic temperament on show sometimes, which is why I agree with Jeff Deaver’s claim to be a craftsman rather than an artist.

    Whenever people ask me for comments, I always say that it’s on the understanding that they REALLY WANT TO KNOW. There’s no point in being told "very nice, dear" because, to be blunt, you can get your mum to do that. I sometimes wonder if they’re hoping I’m going to go rushing to my agent saying, "Ohmigod, this is the BEST THING EVER and I DEMAND you take this person on immediately!"

  9. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Yeah, that was a similar thing in the hi-fi music industry, for people who just wanted to add amps and speakers to a standard head unit – crap in, crap out. Amplified, equalised and beautifully faithfully reproduced crap, but crap nevertheless.

    And I’ve given up getting pissed off at the lack of dots, unless it’s on the cover of one of my own books ;-] It annoys me more when people carefully put them over the ‘ƶ’. How do you pronounced that, exactly? And if you really want to wind me up, put an extraneous ‘e’ on the end of Sharp. But you better be wearing ear defenders, a Kevlar apron, and have a clear line of retreat …

    As for keyboard shortcuts, if you’ve got a PC, use the numeric keypad, hold down Alt, and type 137. Simple, eh?

  10. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Louise

    I waited until I’d had my first book accepted before I got in touch with one of my writing heroes, and asked if they wouldn’t mind having a look, as they’d been kind enough to offer me encouragement when I’d met them at a reading event – to the point of giving me the name of their agent and telling me to contact them – and I’d been a huge fan of just about everything they’d written to that point.

    Sadly, however, they never responded. It kinda took the shine off their work in future for me, and put me off making other approaches until I was MUCH further down the line.

  11. R.J. Mangahas

    Great words of wisdom here, Z. Always appreciated.

    And I can’t tell you how excited I am about Busted Flush releasing your earlier novels, particularly Killer Instinct, which I still have not been able to find for under $100 yet.

  12. Jake Nantz

    God, I would never think of asking a published writer to read my stuff simply because I wouldn’t want to inconvenience them based on the time it would take, and you’re saying people who’ve never read your stuff just send you theirs? What the fuck is wrong with these people?

    Oh and Zoe, LOVE the covers. Now I have to find room for four new books on the shelves….

  13. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi RJ

    Thanks for that – I’m very excited about it, too! I just got the Foreword in from Lee yesterday, and was somewhat awestruck, I can tell you. I always did have a hard time accepting compliments ;-]

  14. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Jake

    It’s weird, actually, because there have been a couple of people, where I’ve offered to read their WIP, and they haven’t sent them, and then – as you say – others just send it regardless.

    Thanks for the kind words on the covers. All credit to the very talented Lisa Novak and David at Busted Flush!

  15. Judy Wirzberger

    deer Zeƫ

    I love yoiur book kovers. I tink the writing inside must be good, too. Under separate kover, Iā€™m sending my book for you to read. You will love it! It will sell more copys than the bible! I hope you read it fast! It is only 1,000 pages. I single spaced to save paper. I know you wonā€™t be busy working on your own stuff! I love Murderati. By the way, could you correct my spelling in the book.

    With the wealth of information available, both printed and online, it amazes me how some writers wait for others to educate them instead of educating themselves. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to respond like Alex. I would say ā€œBut then, my mother cursed like a truck driver.ā€ However, that would be highly insulting to truck drivers.

    Love the covers ā€“ canā€™t wait until the books are on my bookshelf, pages dotted with catsup, dog eared and splashed with highlighter.

  16. Gayle Carline

    First of all, I’m insanely impressed, if I may be allowed an adverb, to know an author so famous that their name is bigger than the title on their covers. Wow! Mine is at the bottom of my cover, as in, "you don’t know her, but…" You’ve given me a new wish to put on my list.

    Second, I am now frightened to call you by name, since I don’t know how to get the dots over the ‘e’ in these comments. I don’t even know how to make anything bold or italicized or even spell-checked.

    And finally, I don’t know how anyone queries or submits or asks a freakin’ question without doing the homework. If they’ve never read your work, why would they want your opinion? How do they know you are a good writer, someone who can give them a valuable critique? Unless, of course, they were impressed by your cover art…

  17. JT Ellison

    Oh Z, I can’t wait to read the early Charlie books! Congratulations – the covers look amazing. Well done, Busted Flush!

    And you’re advice is so spot on – very timely and helpful! I hope all new writers read this and take it to heart. We all want to help, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot out of the box.

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoeeee – well, my Alt 137 sent me to whatever previous website I’d been trolling before clicking onto Murderati. (You don’t want to know.) I’ll never see the dots over the e, except, of course, on your book covers. Which look AWESOME, by the way.

  19. Robert Gregory Browne

    LOVE the covers. It’s so nice when they get it right, isn’t it?

    And I’m with you on the presentation thing. I’ve always been kind of a freak about my manuscripts looking just right — even back when I was writing screenplays.

    First, it just makes me feel better about them, and second, I think it makes the person receiving the manuscript feel better about YOU.

  20. Zoƫ Sharp

    Deer Doodie!

    I howled when I read your comment, and I’m short on endorphins today, so thank you very much for that ;-]

    And I loved the ā€œBut then, my mother cursed like a truck driver.ā€ comment. My mother was a stevedore for many years, and I’m very envious because she can drive a forklift truck. But she hardly swears at all … at least, not when I’m nearby!

    Your comment reminded me of a rejection letter sent to later very famous author, which said, "I am returning the ream of paper you sent to me – somebody appears to have written on it …"


    And highlighter? What do you DO to your books?

  21. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Gayle

    I think the size of my name may be more to do with it being short, so they can print it bigger! And I can’t get italics, bold, links into the comments either. Nor have I quite mastered adding video clips into my posts. <sigh> What it is to be technologically challenged.

    And don’t worry about not putting the dots on. I’m used to it. Like I say, I’d rather they were left off altogether than put in the wrong place. Sometimes, though, I get people I’ve never met before calling me "Zo", and I’m not sure if they’re just shortening my name for the heck of it, or whether they genuinely think that’s how it’s pronounced, like "Joe" rather than "Joey". And I’ve had my name spelt like that, and Zowie as well, but that’s another story.

    As for people wanting my opinion, maybe it’s just a case of any port in a storm?

  22. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi JT

    Thank you, I’m delighted with the covers. I loved your comment "We all want to help, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot out of the box."

    What are these people doing inside a box with a loaded firearm anyway?

  23. Zoƫ Sharp

    Thanks, Stephen

    You’re right – I don’t want to know where you’ve been, as it were ;-]

    Sorry to send you on a wild goose chase. Don’t know why that didn’t work, as I’ve a whole list of Alt-based accent characters, and they all work fine from this end.

    Maybe it’s a Brit thing?

  24. Zoƫ Sharp

    Thanks, Rob, and yes, it is. I love the covers my UK publisher have done, too. They’re going for a definite look. It’s great that Busted Flush had four titles at once to work on, so they could get a real series look going.

    I think you’re right about the person reading it thinking more of you. And silly mistakes and literals distract from what you’re reading. You keep getting the urge to get a red pen out instead of simply absorbing the story.

  25. kit

    I just had to practice the Ć« thingie, and people send submissions to authors? personally, I find that presumptious.
    It may have something to do with the way I view my children right now, they are no longer babies, but tending to go the route of juvenile deliquents…may wind up with a healthy adult yet, however we both may need therapy first.
    anyway, good post and thank you for alt +137 clue.

  26. Nancy Laughlin

    Hi Zoƫ,
    Great post! I once had to sort through a stack of resumes for a warehouse manager position. I was amazed to find several, hand written in pencil and full of mispelled words! These people are everywhere!
    Great covers for your books! I love them. The covers alone would attract my attention. I can’t wait to buy them.

  27. toni mcgee causey

    WOW, I love those covers. Wow. I’d be grinning ear-to-ear, too!

    "…but give yourself a chance to give us a chance to help." — Brilliant advice, all the way through.

    I really do get very frustrated with people who write to ask for help and then go on to tell me that they haven’t read my books. The special award went to one guy who told me that he didn’t "read crap like romance," but he’d heard I was good, so I could take a look at what he had, because he knew I "knew people." Um, yes. I know a few hitmen, but I don’t think that’s what he was hoping for.

  28. Tom

    ZoĆ«, those covers are fabulous beyond mere words. So right for Charlie, and so right for the marketplace. They’ll sell a zillion, and they’ll draw in a lot of Biker Grrrls who might otherwise never look.

    Stephen, without number lock on, a pc running Windows will take you back to a prior web page when you enter ALT-137. With number lock on, you get Ć«.

  29. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Kit

    Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind reading other writers’ work and, if I can help at all, I will. But, some people seem to go out of their way to make things difficult for themselves!

    And here’s me hoist with my own petard, by the way – I’m away from home and borrowing a friend’s Mac, and I’ve no idea how to get the dots over the ‘e’ on this!

  30. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Nancy

    I can well believe your crayoned applications – maybe they’re not allowed sharp objects?

    We recently had a CV sent to us for a job because the name of our house is similar to a local business. We had to send it back with a note saying, "I think you fell at the first hurdle…"

  31. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Thank you – and to everyone who’s commented on the covers.

    I love the comments you’ve had – unbelievable!

    My favourite response to the kind of thing that incredibly rude guy said to you is normally to politely enquire if they can pick up their teeth with broken fingers …?

  32. Judy Wirzberger

    I forgot to menshun that you always spell organization wrong. or is that a tiepo when you put an s wear a z is supposed to be.

    I really don’t highlight excellent passages in books. The books I usually read are so good (or so bad) that the entire page would be yellow.

  33. BCB

    Zoe: (<–if I had a little crane in my MacBook, it would hoist that dotdot up on top of the e), I love the covers! Haven’t seen the old ones, but these are gorgeous. Can’t wait to read them and I’ve bookmarked the publisher’s site — everything you’ve said about Charlie Fox has me intrigued.

    I appreciate that you did a post on the "basics." You really can’t assume people know these things. (I refer to the formatting things, not the common sense polite manners things.) I remember when I first joined RWA, I was so green I didn’t realize a ms wasn’t supposed to be single-spaced. Imagine how thrilled I was when my page count suddenly doubled. šŸ˜‰

    I’m with Jake. I honestly can not imagine asking someone other than a very good friend to read my work as a favour. How presumptous. I consider myself extremely lucky to have a group of supportive (and very smart) readers cheering me on, any one of whom I know would be delighted to give me feedback when the time comes.

    ZoĆ«! <— HAHAHA! I did it, I found the crane! With a MacBook, go to Edit, Special Characters, Accented Latin. Now will I ever remember that again? For you, ZoĆ«, I will try.

    Off to add yoĆ¼r [teehee] May release date to my iCal.

    PS- I do realize it’s the middle of the night where you live. Please do not apologize (again) for not responding to this immediately. Or at all. Really. Get some sleep.

  34. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Tom

    Thank you for the kind comments. I hope they do sell a zillion, as much for Busted Flush as for me. They’ve been amazing.

    Thank you for explaining the PC numeric keypad thing far better than I did. Ask me to explain the difference between a supercharger and a turbocharger, and I’m there. Ask me to do something simple on a computer, and I’m liable to crash the entire internet.

    PS, and can’t you tell I’m back on my own PC now? I can find the dots again!

  35. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Toni

    "For the Ć« on a Mac, I open the character palette window and click on the letter I want and then click ‘insert.’ If someone knows a keyboard method on a Mac, I’d appreciate it!"

    Hmm, I understand most of the words, just not necessarily in that order… Did I mention the whole ‘crashing the internet’ thing?

  36. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi JT

    "Well, so many people are living in boxes these days….. or out of boxes."

    But one of the things I’ve always loved about your is your ability to think OUTSIDE the box ;-]

  37. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi BCB

    As I mentioned earlier, I’m really happy to read a m/s if people really think I might have something to say about it that’s worth listening to. I don’t mind. In fact, I get a kick out of it. And, let’s face it, writing is generally a pretty solitary occupation. Any support, help, and encouragement you can get along the way is great. Doesn’t matter if you’re on your first book or your tenth. Everybody appreciates a constructive objective viewpoint. I just hope I don’t put my foot in it too often, but might I direct you to the name of my blog …

    There have been a couple of ‘Rati commenters who are in the midst of books at the moment, who’ve emailed me with specific queries about areas where I happen to have some technical knowledge, and I really hope, when they get their books done to their satisfaction, I’ll get a chance to read them. That will be a blast.

    And I’m glad you’re intrigued, by the way. Much better than being sick of the sound of Charlie’s name … ;-]

    Thanks for the PS, but we work some really weird hours, and although it’s 1am here, I’ll be working on tonight until I start hitting the space bar with my forehead.

    Those deadlines don’t half loom, and sleep is very overrated …

  38. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Sylvia

    Thanks for that ;-]

    And, having said that sleep is overrated, it’s now 3:26am, and I think I’m going to call it a night … ;-]

    Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by to comment, and for the kind words on the covers. I apologise for the BSP, but it’s just such a thrill to get four all at once, I’m like a kid at Christmas.


  39. Cornelia Read

    Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous covers! YEA! And I agree with everything you had to say about manuscript presentation.

    Years ago, I got to show 75 pages of a novel I’d started in college to a Parisian literary agent (the mother of my sister’s college roomate.) I blush instantly at the memory of the over-written slog of a writing sample that she looked over for me.

    Here’s what she said to me about it at the time (no doubt searching for ANYTHING encouraging and polite she could say that wouldn’t be a total lie, given what dreck it was.) "Dear, I was so very impressed with your manuscript presentation. It all looked tremendously professional."

    And now she’s repping me in France, lo these twenty years later.

    And my first computer was a Kaypro in 1983. iIm so with you on the pre-mouse nostalgia.

  40. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Cornelia

    Thank you for that. What an amazing story. Just goes to show that you really do have to be persist in this business. And she must have recognised your emerging talent, even then. Literary agents are not known for their gentle let-downs if they really don’t feel you’ve got what it takes ;-]

    I think starting out in non-fiction was incredibly good training in terms not only of presentation, but also of not being precious about the work. If it doesn’t fit across a double-page spread, you’re going to get the last couple of paras lopped off, regardless of if it makes sense to the piece or not.

    Yay for the anti-mouse club! Oh, hang on, we’ll have Disney after us if we start that one going …

  41. anonymous

    Guys guys guys. So much work!! all you have to do is hold down the shift key and type z. Then type an o. Then hold down the option (alt) key and type a u and then type an e.

    The dots are in the "u". Ƥ Ć« ĆÆ Ć¶ Ć¼



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