Standard Manuscript Format

Last weekend, I was a panelist at the Pocono Writers' Conference in Stroudsburg, PA. The attendees were largely beginning writers. At one point we were discussing the process of submitting, processes and pitfalls, etc. I mentioned Standard Manuscript Format, and found myself looking out at blank stares.

"Who here knows what Standard Manuscript Format is?" I asked.

A handful of hands raised. (How's that for a badly constructed statement?)

"How many people have no idea what I'm talking about?"

A surprisingly large number.

But really, it shouldn't be surprising. If I look back at myself when I was at their stage, I'd never heard of SMF either.

SMF was standardized at a time when one's story was manually typed onto paper, using a typewriter (often with carbon paper), and the paper was thin to allow for better carbon copies and to reduce the cost of postage. Edits were done in red pencil directly on the page, and eventually (hopefully) the typesetting was done by a person reading that page, placing little bits of lead onto a printing plate. The rules were to give the editor plenty of space to write in, and to make things as uniform as possible to allow for easy reading and easy typesetting.

Many of the reasons for SMF have become obsolete (the typesetting requirements, for example). This is all done with software now, so there's no longer someone staring at a marked up sheet of carbon-copied manuscript trying to sort out if this is a comma or a period, of if that is italicized or not. Technology has rendered much of this moot, but at the same time has created infinite flexibility for writers to do stupid things.

Where before writers might feel compelled to stand out by sending in their manuscript typed on ornate stationary, liberally doused in perfume, now a writer might use a flowery, cursive script (switching fonts to a comic sans for the intentionally funny bits), and litter their manuscript with animated gifs.

Don't. Please. Please don't.

Standard Manuscript Format exists to keep editors sane (for some value of "sane"). When we're sitting down to read submissions, we're we're typically reading batches of stories, and the last thing you want to do is annoy the editor by having them have to reformat your work so that it's readable. The idea is that if the formatting is all the same, it becomes easier for us to consider the story based solely on the content.

So, what is SMF? This is probably the best guide out there:

It is, however, still geared toward the idea of people putting sheets of paper in an envelope, rather than attaching a file to an email.

So, some key differences for electronic submissions:

  • Use headers for your headers. DON'T manually add the header information at the top of each page - there's a good chance that the person receiving your story will be using a different word processor, or even a different version of the same word processor, or is reading on a tablet, and there is no guarantee that the story will be rendered exactly the same on every platform. If you use the header function, it won't matter how many lines my Mac NeoOffice renders your Windows Word 2007, the header will always be on the top of the page. (If you are unsure of how to do this, it's typically an option under an "Insert" tab - you'll be able to find instructions for your specific software online.)

  • It's pretty standard nowadays to use italics for italics, rather than underlines.

  • Unless the guidelines for the market specify a required font, "some reasonable font" is usually adequate. Reasonable includes most commonly Courier or Times New Roman, but can really be any common font that doesn't distract from the editor's reading of the work. In the days of paper manuscripts, Courier was necessary so that the editors could easily estimate word count and layout. Now our software will give us the word count, so it's not as important to use a monospaced font. Remember that the further you stray from the standards (Courier, Times, Arial), the more likely that the font will not be supported in the editor's software, and the display will be unpredictable. My preference is for serif fonts - I find them easier to read. This will vary from person to person, so always read the guidelines.

  • File type - the guidelines will typically tell you what file type the editor wants. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. Typically, .doc and .rtf are safe bets. DON'T use proprietary file types. Don't use .docx unless it is specifically requested. .docx files in particular display strange behavior when being opened in non-Microsoft environments. If you use MS Word, it may be saving your files in .docx format by default. Consider changing your default so that you send out manuscripts that can be read by anyone, no matter what kind of computer or software they are using.

In case it hasn't been stressed enough yet: ALWAYS FOLLOW THE SPECIFIC GUIDELINES FOR YOUR INTENDED MARKET. Every editor works differently, and every market has its own processes and procedures. If some editor wants things single spaced in 9 pt verdana font, double-spaced between paragraphs with no paragraph indent, give them that. But for the vast majority of markets, some reasonable facsimile of Standard Manuscript Format will do you well.

Stupid Brain Tricks

So, I was just in the shower. Wash hair. Song comes into my head. And I'm kinda mumbling along with the tune as I lather up the soap, and I think, "Who is this?"

Because I can't figure out 1) the title and 2) the musician.

Which is weird, because I can hear the song clearly in my head. I can hear the band, each instrument, all the string orchestration. I can hear the singer's voice, even the distinct syllables as he sings, the timbre of his voice. It's like listening to the song on the radio, but I can't made enough sense of the lyrics to identify the song. I can hear the syllables, but they aren't forming words.

It's fucking maddening.

I've identified the time period - late 70s to mid-80s. I've crossed some artists off the list, because the singer's voice is wrong, or their songwriting is too simplistic to have come up with this orchestration. Still.... nothing.

Finally, I finish my shower. Soap and conditioner all warshed off. I turn off the water. The little bath->shower water redirect knob drops down with a click.

Elvis Costello.

Writing Advice About Writing Advice

Abraham Lincoln, in the Spielberg film, says:

A compass [...will] point you True North from where you're standing, but it's got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you'll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp... What's the use of knowing True North?

So, you're on a journey. You're driving from Philadelphia to New Orleans, for coffee and jazz. Whatever, you're going from Point A to Point Z, and you're not entirely sure how to get to Z.

You can use a compass and plot a course and hope for the best.

Or you can plug your destination into a GPS, and follow the step-by-step instructions to get from point A to point Z.

Or, you can dig into the bottom of your glove compartment and pull out the old road map, the one that shows all the places you might be, all the places that you might want to get to, and all the connections in between. Yes, it's messy and confusing, and the damn thing never folds back up right, but it doesn't just show you the most efficient path. It shows you the world, all the places in-between and on the periphery, and you plot out the path that makes sense to you, the one that looks interesting. The one that makes the journey uniquely yours.

Avoid writing advice that looks like GPS instructions, and look for the writing advice that gives you a map, but doesn't tell you where to go.


Got an interesting compliment today from someone who read my most recently published story (The Red Danube, in Betwixt Magazine).

"A thing that warms me about your writing: it doesn't flinch from things that hurt, and it isn't stopped by them."

Stories are like icebergs: the vast bulk of them is never seen by the reader, and in the writing of the story, even the author never sees the whole of it. We get glimpses of this huge mass, lurking under the surface, and we explore the bits that seem most interesting and bring them up into view. Sometimes shaking one piece loose from the aqueous depths will bring up more than we expect.

Our job as writers is to explore what we can, bring what we can to the surface, and then shape that into a compelling narrative. In the shaping, there are things that are pushed back into the water, some so deep the reader will never know, and some that will lie just under the surface, hints and shadows. These are the choices we make to find the best story, and the best expression of the story, that we're able to at the time.

So there's always stuff that's left off the page. Because it doesn't enhance the narrative. Because it introduces a distracting subplot. Because it makes the story run too long. Because it's inappropriate for the intended audience. All sorts of valid reasons.

But "because it hurts" isn't a valid reason.

When that treacherous chunk of ice breaks loose and bobs to the surface, hard and sharp as broken glass, you can't flinch. You have to pull it out and explore it, no matter that it leaves you tattered and bleeding, and then use it if the story calls for it, or put it back if it doesn't.

But if you put it back "because it hurts," it's a lie. And it only takes one lie, the one you lie about because it HURTS, to make the whole story a lie.

Travelogue: Part I

So, Linda and I have been wandering around the country. I've started writing up our Grande Adventures, mostly for us, but who knows, maybe someone else will find them vaguely interesting. So, here's part one.

Day 1: Saturday, September 21, 2013

Woke up too early. Stumbled off to the train station on the former R5 line, which they now call the Paoli-Thorndale line, which seems to be far too many syllables. And somehow contrary to the SEPTA tradition of making public transit obscure to people who don't use it all the time. So, R5 to 30th St station, 30th to the airport, and then up, up, and away.

Landed in Phoenix some hours later, and found a shuttle to take me to Flagstaff. It wasn't as oppressively hot as the other times I've been in Phoenix, but maybe that's because the other times were in August. So, off we go. First thing you notice is that, unlike Philadelphia, there's actually a sun in Arizona. In Philly, we have this little yellowish grey disk that we call the sun, but it turns out that we're generally wrong about that.

The majority of people on the shuttle were locals who use the airport/tourist shuttles as a reasonable way to get around the state. One woman had taken the shuttle from Flagstaff to Phoenix to go shopping, and now was heading home. Another person was a girl in school in Tempe who was going to Flagstaff to visit her boyfriend for a day.

Distance in the west is very different from distance in the east. Some of that is that we have so much stuff packed close together that there's really no reason to drive 150 miles to New York City or Baltimore or DC. There's barely any reason to drive between the suburbs and the city. The other reason is that congestion is so prevalent that the idea of getting on a road and driving 100 miles without ever seeing another car is quite unthinkable. We count ourselves luckly if we traffic on the highways never slows to under half the speed limit.

So, anyway. The shuttle gets to Flagstaff, and Linda's there to pick me up. We drive another 40 minutes to Mormon Lake Lodge, where Linda's herbalism conference was.

Mormon Lake Lodge is this weird-ass place down by Mormon Lake (or Mormon Meadows, as Linda calls it, since most of the lake appears to have evaporated). There's RV and tent camping, and a bunch of small cabins. There's a building that is the General Store, the bar, the restaurant, and the Zane Grey museum. It was Elk hunting season, so the place is half-full of herbalists in flowy cotton & silk, and half-full of elk hunters in olive green camo. The food in the restaurant was pretty much cowboy food, but it looks like they were at least aware of organic and sustainably produced food.

That night, I met some folks I knew over facebook for the first time: Kiva Rose and Rebecca McTrouble, and met some other folks. Linda was sharing a cabin with some other women, and I ended up crashing on the couch in Jim McDonald's cabin. But not yet. There was a party that night, and then an afterparty, which wrapped up somewhere around 3am. Which with jet lag, made for a good 24 hours without sleep.

At the afterparty, I learned about humours. Questions and answers, and various herbalists discussing aspects of these things, and by the end of the night we'd all been diagnosed. Me? I'm bloody phlegm. (Actually, Phlegmatic Sanguine, since apparently order matters.)

Interesting discussion of nature vs nurture, of people who display tendencies that appear to go against their "nature." Discussion of ayervedic conceptions vs humourous conceptions. And how some things are better conceptionalized in one framework than in another. "Nature is uncatagorizable," Jim said. I tend to disagree: nature is categorizable; it's what we do, as humans, in order to make sense of our surroundings. We abstract from our perceptions and construct systems of generalizations out of those perceptions, refining as we learn. The mistake people make is confusing phenomenological truth with absolute truth. When we do that, we take our constructed systems and posit them as the only correct way to interpret the world. It's important to recognize that we generate systems of understanding for a particular utility, and not as a direct window on the absolute. The truth-value of a system is largely identical to the use-value of the system. Different systems can interpret the world in different ways, and give us differently nuanced ways of understanding.

Kids For Cash, or Justice, American-style

This happened a while ago. Like, between 2003 and 2008. Two judges in PA manipulated the system to get county-funded Juvenile Detention facilities closed and replaced with for-profit prisons. Then they funneled 6000 kids into those facilities.

If you were a kid, what sorts of offenses got you jail time? A 10-year-old got 2 years for damaging his parents car. A 16-year-old got 6 months for flipping off her mother. One kid got jail time for making fun of his school principal on myspace. One kid killed himself after being abused in custody.

Some 6000 kids got sent to detention facilities, largely with sentences that were disproportionate to the alleged offenses. At least 4000 of them definitely should never have ended up in detention at all. And the judges got $2.6M as a "finders fee."
Eventually, they were caught, tried, sentenced. The largest sentence went to Judge Ciavarella, who got a 28 year sentence (though it could be reduced to 15 for good behavior, etc etc). The other judge got 17 years, and the people who owned the facilities and paid off the judges got somewhere around 18 months.

At sentencing, Ciavarella was outraged, claiming he was being punished in disproportionate measure to the crimes committed.

So let's do the math.

28 years, assuming he actually does full time, is 10,220 days.

If we're talking 4000 kids whose lives he's fucked up, then that comes to 2.5 days per kid.

If we're talking 6000 kids whose lives he's fucked up, then that comes to 1.7 days per kid.

Ciavarella appealed, of course. And the court rejected the appeal, confirming that 1.7 days is a just punishment for fucking up a kid's life.

(Unless, of course, you're the owner of the facility, who made the payments and solicited the crime in the first place. In that case, just punishment for fucking up a kid's life is 2.19 hours per kid.)

On the Trail (Mix) Again

The following was written on battery power, sitting in the relative dark. Whilst being heckled, and trying to comfort the dog.


So, armageddon happened. We're sitting here with the power out, watching TV by candlelight. Hundreds of channels on cable, and nothing's on.

Anyway, earlier I made up some trail mix, which we're eating now, whilst watching a blank TV. Why go to all that effort? Here's the secret that nobody wants to admit about trail mix: most of it sucks. Even the good stuff, the allegedly healthy stuff. It's super salty, and it's super sweet. They fill it with chocolate (good plan for hot weather, yeah?). Or if there's no chocolate, then it's giant chunks of candied fruit, which is healthy because it's fruit. Right? Either way, you end up needing more salt to cut the sugar. And if you want trail mix without all that sugar, you end up with the stuff that's entirely  peanuts and almonds. (And if you're allergic to almonds, well, sucks to be you (or me, in this case.))

Whole Foods cleverly has these neat bins of semi-finished trail mix that you can mix and match to alter your proportions, but it's still all just the same crap, and you just get to modify the candied fruit to almond ratio a little. Not much use, really.

I decided to visit the bulk foods bins instead, and came up with a trail mix that might actually be 1) healthy, and 2) delicious.

Here's what I bought for the latest batch (which is the best batch so far).

  • Roasted unsalted peanuts

  • Roasted salted soy nuts

  • Pumpkin seeds

  • Sesame seeds

  • Unshelled pistachios

  • Cashews

  • Raisins

  • Dried blueberries

  • Dried figs

  • Dried mangos

  • Date pieces

Here's what I have used in the past, but didn't get into the mix this time:

  • Hazelnuts

  • Dried goji berries

  • Dried cranberries

So, here's the thing with this trail mix. The soy nuts are the ONLY salt source needed. All the sweetness comes from the fruit and the pistachios. You can use any ingredients you want (including chocolate, almonds, and candied fruit) - the key is keeping the proportions right, the size of the pieces relatively uniform, and the overall flavors varied and subtle. If you're going to use chocolate or candied fruit, use it sparingly, so that when you get some, it's a happy surprise, and not something that overwhelms the flavors in every mouthful.

Le Steps:

  1. Find a big mixing bowl. No, the REALLY big one. Yeah, that'll do.

  2. Equal parts peanuts and soy nuts. This is about 50% of the bulk of the trail mix. The soy nuts are both the salt and the crunch. (Entomology aficionados will rightly claim that roasted crickets will serve the same purpose, but since this is a "to taste" recipe, I've left them out.)

  3. Heat up a cast iron pan. Roast the sesame seeds and the pumpkin seeds. If you feel like it, roast the cashews. (In the previous batch, I salted the seeds while roasting, and the overall mix came out too salty. If you have leftover pumpkin seeds, roast them and salt them and eat them up (yum).)

  4. What do you mean you don't know how to roast sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds? You throw them in a hot cast iron pan, move 'em around the bottom of it with a spatula until they're done. You want me to hold your hand? Figure it out.

  5. Throw all that stuff into the mix, and also the pistachios, and blueberries, and raisins, and any other ingredient that is roughly of the same size. Mix. Yes, you can use your hands.

  6. The date pieces are those weird long tube things that they put in other trail mixes. Use just a little (by volume, this is my least used ingredient), and break the tubes into small, peanut-sized bits. The idea is to have your bits to be mostly about the same size.

  7. Slice the figs and mangos - again, aim for pieces of about the same size. The figs will clump together if you aren't careful. The mangos will try to trick the knife into cutting your fingers. I recommend foiling them both.

  8. Mix it all together. Add stuff until such time as each handful of the trail mix has all the stuff you want to put in your mouth.

  9. Eat

And that's about it.

Goodnight, all.

Journal of Unlikely Entomology News

Big news for the Journal of Unlikely Entomology. It's growing. Or molting. Or whatever it is that Entomologically oriented things do when they become something bigger and different from what they were.

There's an announcement here:

But the highlights are:

  • Pay rate increase to $.05/word starting with our November issue (submissions open now)

  • Rebranding as Unlikely Story, which is the entity that has been putting out JoUE.

  • Three themed issues per year

The 3 issues will be:

  • The Journal of Unlikely Entomology (annual) - reading now

  • The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography (annual) - submissions open July 1

  • The Journal of Whatever Tickles Our Fancy This Year (changes each year)

But yeah, go read the announcement details, guidelines, and all that fun stuff.