Get the Format Right!

Since some of my compatriots on here have been talking about reviews, and I’ve been posting some thoughts on DVDs, I thought I should point out the one thing which almost certainly ensures an “empty the colon” review. The wrong format.

Before you even think about releasing a version of your work for review get the format right. I have personally encountered this and I know others on here have as well. You get sent something to review, a supposedly finished product, and the format is wrong. I’m not talking about the media, I’m talking about the content on the printed page. Yes, there is a lot of leeway when it comes to formatting a novel. Some have running page headers and chapter titles, some don’t. Although, once you get used to reading books which have chapter titles and running page headers, books without them leave you with a subconscious “unfinished” feeling.

When it comes to page numbers there are many schools of thought. Some novels still put the page number centered at the bottom of the page. A few books will do this only on the first page of a chapter. These books also don’t start a chapter at the top of the page, rather, they start the chapter 1/3 the way down to allow for some image or fancy giant letter. Having the page number at the top would diminish the visual experience. Most of the fiction I encounter today put the page number in the upper right corner.

Many reference books (mine own The Minimum You Need to Know series included) still use reference page numbering which is chapterNumber-pageNumber in the upper right corner of each page. Some people poo-hoo about this numbering system, but it evolved for a reason. It is not unusual for multiple people to work on a single reference book without ever meeting each other. Once page size, margin and fonts are chosen, along with which file format to use, the various authors have little need to communicate. An outline is created and each are assigned their chapters with deadlines. Reference books rarely need to have a flow from chapter to chapter. Each author is/was also required to provide a text file of index entries sorted alphabetically. It is very easy for a publisher/editor to merge those text files and sort them then add a few headings between letters, or just blanks. If you created an entry for Chapter 4 page 127 the index entry would still be 4-127 after the book was assembled.

Yes, many word processors today can “automatically” update index entries. There are quite a few IFs to go along with that statement. IF you figured out which tagging keystroke/mouse click combinations to use AND you have everything tagged. IF your word processor doesn’t have the oft encountered bug of treating different case combinations as different entries. IF your book doesn’t have pita and PITA the organization or something like that in it. IF your software doesn’t have one of those weird bugs that after N updates it decides to create a duplicate index. (I actually had that happen in this book and it made it through to the printed version.) IF you manage to read ALL of the documentation, even the obscure stuff only found in user forums, about ALL of the settings you need to have in place for index generation/update to work correctly. Well, you get the idea. Most of the better Reference books have gone back to C-P numbering because it works. Some even print black bars on the cut edge of the page staggered like filing tabs so you can look at the edge of the book, count the black blobs and open directly to the chapter you are interested in. (Automotive repair books used to do this, others too probably.)

Trying to do double or triple duty with your source file will run you into trouble as well. Those “one file does it all” POD sites will produce a book which leaves many readers with the subliminal feeling “unprofessional.” This will be especially true if you use one of those sites which allow customers to opt for a hardcover version. Go to any book store or supermarket. Pick up a hardcover book from a major imprint. Flip to a full page and take a critical look. What do you see? You may have to really look because you are so used to seeing this you only notice when it isn’t done. Full Justification. The right margin is pretty much the same straight line as the left giving paragraphs a block format. Most ebooks cannot do this because those itty bitty reader screens cannot fit the full width of the text AND because the content creator cannot control the font. We can pick a font and initial size, but the reader is going to substitute to whatever it has if the font cannot be embedded in that file type. Even if it makes it through the person reading generally has the option to make the font really large for ease of reading. Trying to use one file for everything generally means a printed version of the work with an incredibly jagged right margin and the person reading it with an “unprofessional” feeling they can’t quite put their finger on.

Spacing is another source of those can’t quite put their finger on it unprofessional feelings. How many of you remember back to grade school when you were first being taught to print and were told to put two fingers down at the end of the first sentence to tell you where to start the next? Come on. You had that funky paper with two solid lines and a dashed line in between them to help you control letter height. Later in life you (hopefully) took a typing class and were told to hit the space bar twice at the end of each sentence. Many professional business document templates still have this built into them because business created that rule. You may have noticed that both on-line and in the printed book world they’ve gone to a single space. Went there years ago. If you toggle between writing business documents and writing novels you may find it difficult to break yourself of this habit. Here is a crutch you can lean on. Most word processors will let you perform a global search and replace of two spaces with a single space. The reason publishing went to a single space is profit. All of those spaces needlessly increase the page count which increases the printing cost of the book. Just removing them can shrink a thousand page book down to 800 or so. The book is still priced the same but now costs a bit less to print.

Here is another spacing issue which is tied in with the jagged right margin and eReader issue. That blank space between paragraphs. Smaller imprints trying to make “one file do it all” removed the blank between paragraphs. This in turn shortened the total number of lines which reduced the printing costs. It does create visual paragraph boundary problems though. You might have noticed that many business documents and most sites on-line long ago did away with tabbing in the first line of a paragraph. When you have full justification that blank line provides a visual break for the block. Without the blank line you have some really ugly looking text.

“One file for all” services have played around with visual paragraph spacing using just a few (usually 2 but sometimes 4) spaces to make the pond of black ink on the page more readable. In large part it hasn’t worked. The problem is people don’t like to read fixed width fonts. As a programmer I was used to every character taking the exact same width of a screen line and a TAB being 8 characters. I think there was even an ANSI standard for this at one point, but it might have just been an industry wide custom. People like to read dynamically spaced fonts though. You may have noticed most word processors as you to set a TAB width based on a physical width of either inches or centimeters. Internally the program uses some formula based on the pixel capabilities of the display to guess at how far over to display the character following a TAB.

All of these things are simply the things which will leave your reader with that “unprofessional” feeling they can’t quite put their finger on. What ensures a colon emptying review from an ethical reviewer has to do with the movie novelization smear.

Much of the writing world dumps on movie novelization efforts. I heard a great piece on NPR the other day about this very topic.

The smear is All those people do is take a script then cut and paste it into a word processor to print a book. Hopefully you will get a chance to listen to that On the Media piece. Nothing could be further from the truth, except for those misguided creatures who actually do it. Yes dear reader, myself and many others have been sent books to review where someone trying to sell a script to the movie world does just that.

A script has a prescribed format I do not understand, I just know it exists.  It’s an ugly looking thing, but it is meant to be functional.  I cannot find the link now and the two I have provided show the scene and camera information in-line, but, one format rule set I read long ago assigned 3 columns to the script page with the center column for actor dialogue and the left for scene settings. The right was either for camera settings or actor notes or something. The one annoying thing that same instruction set said was to double space everything. This was supposedly so actors had room for notes or suggestions. I don’t remember. Just visit that second link and look at the sample script from Pulp Fiction. Imagine having to read an entire book in that font formatted like that!

There is no way someone who reads or writes books for a living can give a book a good review when it is formatted like that.

Movie novelization isn’t about pasting a script into a text editor to print a book. It is about taking the ugliest duckling in the world and creating a beautiful swan out of the thing.

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